Why was this pioneer so deferential to the Church?


BIOGRAPHY: Frank Duff: A Life StoryBy Finola Kennedy. Continuum, 288pp. £12.99

‘THE OBJECT OF the Legion of Mary is the glory of God through the holiness of its members developed by prayer and active co-operation, under ecclesiastical guidance, in Mary’s and the Church’s work of crushing the head of the serpent and advancing the reign of Christ.” Thus the first sentence, under the heading of “Objects”, in The Official Handbook of the Legion of Mary, revised in 2005. Founded in 1921, today the Legion has more than four million active members and 10 million auxiliary members in almost 200 countries.

Its founder, Frank Duff, was brought up in a solidly upper-middle-class family; his father was a civil servant, and he and his siblings became civil servants and doctors. His father’s ill health and early retirement denied Duff, the eldest son, a university education, and in 1908 he entered the Civil Service, where he worked on the Land Acts that were transforming Irish society. He described them as “a revolution infinitely more complex than the conquest of England by the Normans or Ireland by the Danes”. He later had substantial input into the 1923 Land Act, and, although disappointed in his hopes of promotion, he remained in the Civil Service for 26 years.

He became involved with the Society of St Vincent de Paul and the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart through work contacts, and out of these lay Catholic organisations developed the Legion of Mary, originally focused on visiting the sick and poor, and encouraging devotion to the Virgin Mary. It expanded its interests and its membership rapidly, and over time it included in its numbers many influential people in Irish society, including senior civil servants, trade unionists, politicians, lawyers and doctors.

Duff opposed industrial schools (he spoke of the NSPCC “shovelling children into industrial schools”); wanted and arranged for unmarried mothers to keep their children (the Regina Coeli Hostel, which he established in 1930, was dedicated to this purpose); believed homeless men and women deserved accommodation (the Morning Star Hostel, which he established in 1927, was dedicated to this purpose); believed women to be as capable of leadership as men (many of the officerships in the Legion, both in Ireland and worldwide, were held by women); and was largely ecumenical in his approach to other religions (he established a number of cross-religious organisations in the 1940s). In all of these respects, he was well ahead of his time.

This new biography of Duff by Finola Kennedy, author of the hugely influential and informative Cottage to Creche: Family Change in Ireland(2001), follows in the footsteps of a small number of other biographies, all by members of the Legion. Kennedy tells us scrupulously in her introduction that she herself is a member of the Legion, and was Duff’s god-daughter. She concludes her acknowledgments with the Legion slogan, “Totus Tuus” (“Totally Yours”), the beginning of a favourite Legion prayer. We are alerted to the fact that what we will be reading is an insider’s view of both Duff and the Legion.

Writers in Kennedy’s position have to try to interrogate the intellectual and social framework that underpins the Church, a framework that has no meaning for many Irish people and has had dreadful consequences for some. Although the book is thoroughly researched and well written, Kennedy’s assumption that readers will share her unquestioning acceptance of Catholic norms is ill founded and severely limits the potential analytical scope of a study that covers most of the 20th century, a period of enormous change in the Church and in Irish society.

She does not examine or challenge the Irish culture of extreme deference to clerical authority, which poisoned large sections of Irish society by preventing robust questioning of fundamental issues affecting their lives, and which imploded only with the growth of the women’s movement and the recent sex scandals involving clergy. It is possible to describe and admire Frank Duff’s idealism, practical efficacy and achievements without accepting that his total subservience to the Irish clerical philosophical framework, which emphasised obedience and distrusted lay initiatives, was justified. It should also be explicitly acknowledged that the Legion of Mary, while engaged in many useful social initiatives, had proselytism as one of its main objectives.

The attitude to the Legion of the Dublin diocesan hierarchy, first in the person of Edward Byrne, archbishop of Dublin from 1921 to 1940, and later John Charles McQuaid, his successor, is typical of the arrogance, hauteur and often fabulous stupidity demonstrated by some members of the hierarchy, not just in the 1920s and 1930s but, in some cases, to this day. One would have thought that a lay Catholic organisation with a mission to help the poor and a special devotion to the Virgin would have enlisted the support and formal endorsement of its local prelates almost from the moment of its inception.

Instead, Duff’s repeated requests for endorsement of the organisation’s constitution and handbook met with refusals even to meet him, when there was any response at all. The pope endorsed the Legion of Mary two years before the local archbishop condescended to do so.

Duff is probably best known to Dublin people as the man who led the campaign to clear the Monto – Montgomery Street – area of the city of brothels, and to provide accommodation and religious instruction to the prostitutes who worked there. The chapter in the book dealing with the argument between Duff and McQuaid about McQuaid’s censorship of Duff’s writings about the Monto is riveting in its exposure of McQuaid’s adamantine belief in the importance of his own power and authority, and his contempt for theologically untrained lay people.

Unfortunately, Duff accepted McQuaid’s strictures in a spirit of Catholic “obedience”, his unvarying response to critical or obstructive interventions by the hierarchy. It is a pity Kennedy did not quote more from the relevant correspondence, the better to remind us of the levels of superiority assumed by McQuaid right through his episcopate, ending with his (mistaken) assurance to his congregation that Vatican II would entail “no change in the tranquillity of your Christian lives”.

Kennedy tells us that the Legion archive holds 33,000 letters written by Duff in his lifetime, which have been digitised. She uses them liberally throughout the book, and conveys a strong sense of Duff’s personality: determined, creative, obstinate, passionate about his religion and its promotion, compassionate, organisationally gifted. But we see no dark side, except sadness when he is discouraged or exhausted. Although we are told he had a temper, there is no hint of it in the quoted letters. It would be interesting to see how other researchers might handle this voluminous correspondence.

This biography is an affectionate tribute to a friend and hero of the author, and a well-researched, if uncritical, piece of work about an interesting man who had far-reaching ideas and effects on Irish society. It is to be hoped that the wonderful Legion archive, used extensively and productively in the book, is available to other scholars who may wish to explore the man and the organisation.

Catriona Crowe is head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland and chairperson of the SAOL Project, a community-based programme for women in treatment for drug addiction in Dublin’s north inner city