Legion founder's principles still very relevant


RITE AND REASON: The mover behind the Legion of Mary offered hope, saying Ireland had immense possibilities

FRANK DUFF is best known as the founder of the Legion of Mary, but it is generally forgotten that he spent 26 years as a civil servant.

In the 1940s, a small group consisting of Duff, León Ó Broin, Joe Walshe, later Irish ambassador to the Vatican, Paddy Little, a founder member of Fianna Fáil and then minister for posts and telegraphs, and Seán Ryan, editor of the Irish Catholic, would spend time discussing the general betterment of Ireland.

Little mentioned to then taoiseach Éamon de Valera that Duff was seeking ways to improve the situation in Ireland, and the latter suggested Duff be asked to draw up a memorandum for him. It is revealing to read it today, as it might have been written in the current context.

He wrote: “Our present position is that of disillusion, disheartenment, utter perplexity, cynicism, apathy. In such a mood, and with the misgiving creeping into so many hearts that the nation is no more than a big racket, what chance is there that its children will serve it worthily or sacrifice themselves for it? Elemental instinct in us rebels violently against the notion of mere exploitation in the name of a sacred cause.”

His memo called for a set of “national principles” which would help generate practical idealism. In drawing up these ideals for Ireland, Duff said terms such as “democracy”, “social justice” or “a Christian nation” should not be used “as mere catch-cries”. Christianity must be authentic, not a mere sham or caricature.

Of Christianity in Ireland, he said: “Without the practical living of the full Christian duty, the theory is fruitless; without it we are thrown back on the caricature of Christianity.”

In his memorandum Duff offered hope, saying Ireland had immense possibilities.

To clarify the meaning of “Ireland a nation”, he suggested the government should select four or five persons of very different types, including at least one Protestant, who would examine the question privately and who would then present a draft set of national principles.

De Valera asked that Duff should himself “attack that task”. The principles Duff proposed were based on an overarching Christianity, where each man cared for his fellow man.

The first principle for the State should be the recognition of every person as an individual, not merely as part of a herd. The second was equality of treatment. All sorts of discrimination must be eliminated. The third was that everyone should contribute to the nation according to ability. This included preparedness to undertake some voluntary work.

Duff sent his memorandum to de Valera, who was out of office within weeks after the 1948 vote. When de Valera was returned as taoiseach in 1951, he did not revert to the matter with Duff.

Duff’s concern for the state of the nation continued, and he sought practical ways in which his ideas could be used. With the Legion he undertook a number of community-building projects, for example at Inchigeela in Co Cork and at Tuosist in Co Kerry.

Almost everyone seems to want to blame “the system” at the moment – political, financial or regulatory. But perhaps the system failed because right principles were not applied.

Finola Kennedy is an economist. Her book, Frank Duff: A Life,will be published in the autumn by Continuum