Mother and baby home controversy overshadows work of Frank Duff

Legion of Mary founder a tireless worker in aiding single mothers to raise own children

Frank Duff’s kindness and bravery would be recognised by a blue plaque placed on the Regina Coeli building. File photograph: The Irish Times

Frank Duff’s kindness and bravery would be recognised by a blue plaque placed on the Regina Coeli building. File photograph: The Irish Times

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If there was an organisation, founded in Ireland 100 years ago, which now has 10 million members worldwide, you would expect its centenary to attract huge media coverage.

But no doubt because the Legion of Mary is Catholic and because it was behind the establishment of a mother and baby home in central Dublin, its centenary in 2021 has been largely allowed pass unmarked.

It’s pretty much a certainty that when Frank Duff founded the Legion of Mary 100 years ago this year, the church authorities were pleased. But when he went on to establish the Regina Coeli Home on Dublin’s North Great Brunswick Street he ruffled a few feathers and maybe a few mitres.

Paddy Murray is a journalist and a Catholic with reservations

Indeed, the former Blackrock College student has been compared with one who followed him into the school more than half a century later – Bob Geldof, another rebel with a cause who, unconcerned by criticism, wanted to look after those discarded by society.

Mothers had to go out to work to earn their keep to support and feed themselves and their children

Regina Coeli was not a mother and baby home in the way we have come to think of such places. It did not exist to facilitate fast-track adoptions. It was not a place where mothers would give birth only for their babies to be taken from them.

Duff wanted to ensure that single mothers could raise their own children all the way to adulthood. It wasn’t easy. Life in the Regina Coeli hostel wasn’t a bed of roses as acknowledged by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation report earlier this year.

The mothers had to go out to work to earn their keep to support and feed themselves and their children. Duff believed that mothers and their babies should be together and not separated. It wasn’t a popular opinion in 1930 when he established the home.

But Duff was no ordinary devout Catholic. He persuaded the government of the day in 1922 to buy a building on Harcourt Street which he turned into a refuge for prostitutes who had escaped the pimps and criminals who ran the vice business in Monto, an area later made famous in song.

When he established societies to encourage mutual understanding between different Christian denominations, and indeed between Christians and Jews, his actions were frowned upon by Catholic Church authorities.

He reached out to Travellers when nobody else would.

And while homosexuality was not only a taboo subject, but illegal, he established a praesidium to reach out to and befriend homosexuals.

None of this went down well with the church authorities of the time.

One man who came through the Regina Coeli hostel is Gordon Lewis, who wrote the book Secret Child about his relatively happy time in the hostel which is where he was born. The book became a best seller and was later made into an award-winning short film.

Now, he is at the forefront of the campaign to have Duff’s contribution to the lives of single mothers remembered. He wants a blue plaque to be placed on the Regina Coeli building.

Undated photo of the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photograph: PA
Undated photo of the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photograph: PA

Lewis believes Duff was far ahead of his time in looking after single mothers and their children. His early years weren’t perfect but at least he had his mother and she had him.

He may never have made it to the top of the music charts like Geldof, but the reasonable start in life that the Regina Coeli hostel gave Lewis allowed him build a career in the music world. And as he rose up the ladder his Gordon Lewis Organisation made music films over the years for the likes of David Bowie, Queen, Neil Young, Elton John, Rod Stewart and others.

I hope Frank Duff’s kindness and bravery will be recognised by that plaque

Now though, it is the plaque on the old Regina Coeli building which occupies Lewis’s mind.

“I suppose because of, not despite, recent events it is important we remember those who did the right thing by single mothers, including my own. I hope Frank Duff’s kindness and bravery will be recognised by that plaque. I can only propose it. Now, it’s up to others,” he said.

Lewis said this could be an excellent opportunity for the Legion of Mary to embrace the plan for a plaque to commemorate the thousands of single mothers and their children who lived together in this building because of Duff’s foresight.

“Obviously, the building’s owners, the De Montfort Trust, which is part of the Legion of Mary, will have to give permission. So we’ll have to wait for that,” said Lewis.

It will take a bit of courage to endorse such a plan. But then, that was one thing Frank wasn’t short of.

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