Sunday 17 July 2011

New biography of an Irish Catholic pioneer

The Irish Times has offered a generally positive review of Finola Kennedy's new biography of her late godfather, Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary. Duff founded the society in 1921, with its primary aim being to encourage devotion to the Virgin Mary and to provide practical charitable solutions to the problems of Ireland's many disadvantaged. Based heavily on the teachings of Saint Louis de Montfort, under Duff's leadership the Legion of Mary founded many organisations and establishments which were far, far ahead of their time in early and mid-century Ireland. He strongly opposed the industrial schools for abandoned children from lower-class backgrounds, a position which seems almost prescient when the catalogue of physical abuse inflicted upon Irish children in the industrial schools came to light towards the end of the twentieth century. In contrast to other sections of Catholicism in Ireland at the time, who favoured approaches like the infamous Magdalene laundries to "solve" the problem of mothers giving birth outside of wedlock, Duff and the Legion of Mary established the Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven) Hostel in 1930 for unwed mothers to raise their children in a safe and welcoming Christian environment. To tackle Dublin's homeless problem, the Legion set up the Morning Star Hostel and in the 1940s, when Ireland was being excoriated by their northern neighbours in Ulster for remaining neutral in the fight against Nazism, Duff established several ecumenical outreach programmes to work with Irish Protestants on projects of common interest. He also tackled prostitution and Dublin's legion of brothels. An inspiring and gracious man, Frank Duff passed away in 1980, at the age of ninety-one and today the Legion of Mary is the largest apostolic organisation of the Catholic laity anywhere in the world, with over ten million members.

Catriona Crewe, who reviews the book for the Times, is herself the head of Special Projects for the National Archives of Ireland and chair-person of the SAOL project, which works with women tackling drug addiction in Dublin today. Crewe finds much to praise in Kennedy's biography of her celebrated godfather, with the book reminding the reader why there is so much to "admire [in] Frank Duff’s idealism, practical efficacy and achievements". However, Crewe also criticises the book's failure to engage with "the arrogance, hauteur and often fabulous stupidity" of the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland, as it threw obstacle after obstacle in Duff's way because it distrusted lay initiatives and was determined, at all costs, to hold onto its control of all social and charitable projects in Ireland. As Crewe wryly observes, "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."

Duff's life stands at an interesting point in Irish history, because it shows that vibrancy and effective piety were possible in Irish Catholic social organisations, even as it hurtled towards the appalling moral crises of its recent history. One cannot help but feel that if Duff had been slightly gutsier, as Catriona Crewe suggests, or if there had been more men like Frank Duff and less like Archbishop McQuaid, then the horror of what came next might have been avoided. However, moving beyond the Irish historical perspective of Duff's life, the achievements made by the Legion of Mary, both then and today, are a tribute both to his own inspirational life and vision, but also of the usefulness the Legion continues to have, even nine decades after it was first founded.
The full review by Catriona Crewe can be accessed HERE.

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