Keeping the Faith with a Procession unique to Cork

In previous decades, city streets would be thronged with tens of thousands of worshippers for the Annual Eucharistic Procession. Now in its 93rd year, the tradition still attracts passionate crowds, though much smaller ones than before. Gráinne McGuinness speaks to those at the procession about the changes in the role of religion in Irish life and how the tradition has adapted in recent years.
Keeping the Faith with a Procession unique to Cork
Members of the Syro-Malabar Church, Cork, among the groups taking part in the 93rd Cork Eucharistic Procession. Picture: Denis Minihane.

IT seems strange for a religious parade once the preserve of men but as the 93rd Annual Eucharistic Procession leaves the North Cathedral on Sunday, the sole voice that can be heard clearly is that of a woman.

A Presentation Sister leads the marchers and gathered spectators in a decade of the Rosary as they turn left on exiting the cathedral gates and start making their way toward the altar on Daunt Square.

In a tradition that dates back to 1926, Bishop John Buckley of Cork and Ross, this year joined by Bishop Denis Brennan of Ferns, carries the Eucharist from the cathedral for a public celebration on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The woman’s voice is not the only sign of the changed times. Where once the prayer and response would have relied on the human ear and the voices of the worshippers, now the prayer is broadcast by speakers on a Volkswagen Transporter, the better to be heard by all in the vicinity. And where once thousands would have packed the streets, now spectators gather in small groups, chatting and shielding babies from the heat.

Eucharistic Procession 1940
Eucharistic Procession 1940

At 3.15pm, half an hour before the celebrations begins, there is little to be seen outside the North Cathedral, other than a group of uniformed students being shown how to carry the canopy that will cover the bishops and the Eucharist, and a mixed group of young people lounging on the steps. Inside around 50 people, the majority over 60, listen to the Rosary.

But minute by minute, people arrive, greetings are made, banners unfurled and the parade participants begin to arrange themselves in preparation for setting out.

The group on the steps are there with SHARE, the young people’s charity dedicated to care of the elderly in Cork. Laura Harrington and Ellen O’Brien, both from Douglas, say they have been looking forward to the annual event.

“Every year the executive from SHARE for this academic year take part in the Procession,” Laura says. 

“It is our last occasion together.” 

THE group are students of Regina Mundi College but the total group of around 40 teenagers has representatives from all the city centre schools. Mostly senior cycle students not taking exams, they have committed with enthusiasm to the charitable activities of SHARE for the year. Although bashful when asked about the place of religion in their lives, they are happy to don bibs and represent their group.

For Bishop Buckley, this is a large part of the importance of the annual event, an opportunity for the people of the city to give public witness to their faith and their charitable work.

Bishop of Cork & Ross John Buckley blessing the gathered crowd of the faithful after Corpus Christi procession in Cork City.Picture: Cillian Kelly
Bishop of Cork & Ross John Buckley blessing the gathered crowd of the faithful after Corpus Christi procession in Cork City.Picture: Cillian Kelly

“It is a big day for Cork city,” he says beforehand.

“It has a long history going back to the 1920s, initiated by lay people after the civil war to bring Cork people back together, because they didn’t like to see Cork people fighting!

“It has continued ever since and has remained a public demonstration of faith.”

The various banners that arrive hint at the changing dynamics in the city. Some bear parish and group names that have appeared in the parade for decades: Knights of St Columbanus, and Legion of Mary, Farranree, Blarney Street and Knocknaheeny/Holyhill.

But these are joined by the Syro Malabar Church Cork, a gathering of Indian families, whose scarlet, rich purple and vivid orange parasols almost glow in the June sun. This group are best prepared for the scorching weather. In addition to the beautifully fringed and decorated sunshades, the many children and others adults in the group also have their own smaller parasols, in the yellow and white of the papal flag.

They are not the only newer members of the Procession, a large contingent also gather behind a flag marking them out as the Polish community in Cork and others represent communities from Africa and other points across the globe.

As Bernard Spillane readies his Legion of Mary banner, he welcomes the newer attendees.

“I have been taking part in the Procession for about 50 years, since I was 10 or 12,” he says.

“In days gone by there were thousands walking, the crowd would have been way up Cathedral Road, way down Gerald Griffin Street and way over St Mary’s Avenue, with the different parishes joining in.

“It is not as big now but it is great to see young people getting involved and organisations like SHARE taking part. It gives them recognition for the work they do.”

He stresses that as well as having their own communities, immigrants are also embraced in the traditional city parishes.

“They are a big part of the Church now, here in our own church we have readers from different parts of the world,” he says.

“It is a way of showing all the different groups you have in the city, the Indian group and there are Polish and Nigerian groups, you have other international groups. It is great to see it, particularly the young people.”

Music comes from a variety of sources. A lone piper leads the Procession, walking immediately after the men carrying the first banner.

Further back, a brass band alternates with the voices of the Faithful praying the Rosary as the Procession moves through the streets of the Northside. The Polish group sing their own hymns softly as they walk, the devotion in the music evident even to those who cannot understand the words.

By the time everyone has left the cathedral grounds it appears close to 1,000-strong and, although nothing to the crowds who gathered along the route in the heyday half a century ago, many still line the streets down to the quays. Some set up small Corpus Christi altars, others lean in doorways and bow their heads as the bishops pass.

Jerimiah O’Hara waiting for the Corpus Christi procession to pass by on the north side of Cork City.Picture: Cillian Kelly
Jerimiah O’Hara waiting for the Corpus Christi procession to pass by on the north side of Cork City.Picture: Cillian Kelly

A bowed head is not enough for 88-year-old Jeremiah O’Hara, who goes slowly down on one knee as the Eucharist passes where he waits, with a treasured tapestry hung on the railings alongside him. He grew up nearby and is now a beneficiary of the work of the young people in the Procession, living in SHARE’s sheltered housing.

“I have been coming to the Procession for years,” he says after he accepts help to get back to his feet.

“I show this tapestry every year. It came from Cyprus, an army captain brought it to me about 12 years ago. I hang it up twice every year, for today and again on Good Friday.”

He is visibly touched when a woman breaks away from the walkers temporarily to hand him a flower in thanks for his devotion. He stops chatting to tuck it carefully away in his trolley before telling me of his long connection to the North Cathedral.

“I was born and raised in Shandon Street, baptised in the Cathedral and got my Communion and Confirmation there.”

Liam McAllen also stops to admire Jeremiah’s tapestry and as we walk alongside the parade, he tells me tradition brings him back every summer.

“I lived out this side of the city for years. I served my time in a little furniture factory on Shandon Street — it is all apartments now,” he says.

“I come back each year to walk with it. I make a point of going.”

The 75-year-old describes the huge change from what it would have been in years gone by and admits that as a young man, he enjoyed it as much as a social occasion as a spiritual one.

“The women used not to march before. They would line the streets the whole way from the Cathedral to Patrick Street,” he says.

“I am talking about going back to the 50s and 60s now, it was unbelievable. I would have been looking at the girls and all the women would be lined along the street, it was wonderful!”

The Procession can be better seen in all its length as it reaches the quays and turns onto St Patrick’s Bridge but the change in how it is received is also visible. Until now, almost everyone on the streets was not only aware of the Procession but there to see it. In the city centre strollers and shoppers pause briefly to watch and some can be seen turning to their companions to wonder what is happening.

The Procession waits for a moment on the bridge before moving onto Patrick Street. As the Garda Traffic Unit starts to roll forward the lone bagpiper begins a haunting rendition of Ave Maria and the convoy moves on to the final stretch.

The 93rd Cork Eucharistic Procession making its way into St. Patrick's St: Denis Minihane.
The 93rd Cork Eucharistic Procession making its way into St. Patrick's St: Denis Minihane.

For the piper, Norman O’Rourke, leading the parade is just the latest way he takes part in an event that has been part of his life since he was a boy.

“I love the Procession. I think it is an honour to play in it,” he tells me afterwards.

“I am 79 this month and since I was a young fella I remember being a part of this.

“I used be in a choir in St Patrick’s Church and can remember carrying a banner, and that was a big thing that time, I’m going back 60 or 70 years now. Then as time went on, I was in the bands and then bands faded away which is sad, fellows die and things change.

“This is my third year on my own. Playing is my way of thanking the Lord. I wouldn’t be a Holy Joe at all but I am very thankful that I have the lungs and I can do it.”

While the odd person and group stands waiting on Patrick Street for the parade to pass, most people are shoppers or sightseers. One man walks past ignoring the religious, but glued to a radio broadcasting that other tradition of the Irish summer, the GAA Championship.

The combination of traffic restrictions and the heat means it is much quieter than usual for 4pm on a Sunday. The barriers used earlier in the day for the annual Cork City Marathon are still stacked in front of Merchant’s Quay, suggesting a greater crowd for the sporting event than the religious one.

Just hours previously, tens of thousands had applauded runners and walkers through the city streets in what has become an annual tradition in its own right.

While a smaller crowd is in situ now, the passion is just as clear.

As the Procession rolls slowly along, shoppers dodge across the street ahead of it and a waiting garda has to explain to a Deliveroo cyclist why he needs to go round another way.

This changes again as the groups reach Daunt Square. There the other celebrants, the Choir of the Church of the Incarnation and guest soloist Jessica O’Connell, have performed hymns as parishes from around the city gathered to await the Procession. The street closer to Daunt Square is full and many of the older spectators drop to their knees as the bishops approach.

As is traditional, special places are reserved for the sick and those in wheelchairs and Bishop Buckley gives them a special blessing before ascending the altar. The civic leaders and other guests take their places and by the time the walkers have joined the waiting worshippers, there are several thousand people congregated at the end of Patrick Street.

It may not be the massed crowds of the 50s and 60s but it is still an impressive sight. As older members of the congregation bow their heads and join in the prayers and hymns, younger children, in buggies or holding hands with parents, seem temporarily awestruck by the display and there is a respectful silence between prayers as the ceremony takes place.

Bishop Brennan gives the homily and in it describes the Eucharistic Procession, with its joy and colour, as being a metaphor for the human journey through life. Now based in Wexford, he tells me beforehand, he knows Cork well and is delighted to visit.

“I did missions here years ago,” he said.

“I was in Blackpool, Turners Cross and in The Lough, so I know the city extremely well.

“I consider it to be a city of strong faith and also an extremely friendly city. When I was in Blackpool and you knocked on a door and there was nobody in, someone would probably open a window next door.

“Not only would they tell you where they were gone, they would know what time they would be back! It was amazing for a city, they are not normally like that. I always thought it was very friendly and welcoming.”

The ceremony ends with the bishops carrying the Eucharist around to Saints Peter and Paul’s Church and as they walk back more people go down one knee as they pass. A father taps his two young children on the shoulder and they lean into him as they kneel. The choir continue to sing as the crowd gradually disperse.

The girls of the Cathedral parish in their Holy Communion dresses, who solemnly scattered petals in the Procession an hour earlier, now smile and giggle with each other and their parents, as the faithful worshippers slowly merge back into the everyday crowds on the streets of the city.

The Indian group, from Kerala, still stand out in their vivid colours and their chaplain Father Sebastian Arackal tells me his congregation number 130 families living around the city. Most of the adults work as nurses in various Cork hospitals and their children learn catechism each week before the whole community gather in Wilton Church on Sunday evening for mass.

“We take part in the this Procession every year,” Fr Arackal says.

“We all enjoy it, the children love it.”

Much has been made in recent years of the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland and in Cork and Sunday’s Procession cannot boast the 25,000 plus attendance at its diamond jubilee in 1986.

But from the young people of SHARE to the children learning catechism from Fr Arackal, from Jeremiah O’Hara’s tapestry to Norman O’Rourke’s solo homage on the bagpipes, the Eucharistic Procession is still a big day for this city and its citizens.

As Bishop Buckley says: “It is the only city in Ireland or in Europe, with a public Procession quite like this.”

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