Wednesday 7 December 2016

Review: Frank Duff, A Life Story by Finola Kennedy

Burns & Oates, €14.99

Ulick O'Connor

Published 14/08/2011 | 05:00

Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary was a remarkable man. He was a first-class civil servant, an athlete who took second place in an all-Ireland mile championship, a voracious reader of all types of literature and he had a huge sense of humour.

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I met him once and I have never forgotten his smile. It is appropriate that an admirable biography of Duff by Finola Kennedy should come out at this time.

Duff was in many ways the first Irish ecumenist of real mettle. But he had to fight the hierarchy both here and in Rome in order to build the Legion of Mary, an organisation for which he claimed "the Vatican Council was simply catching up with what the Legion had stood for all along".

The purpose of the Legion of Mary as described in its handbook was "to place at the disposal of the bishops of diocese and the parish priest a form of social service and Catholic action which these authorities may deem suitable to legionnaries and useful to the welfare of the Church ... It has as its keynote getting in touch with every man and woman and doing so with the 'soft eyes of Mary never as judge or critic'".

Duff also fought fiercely against the suppression of women's rights in the Church. By the time he died he had praesidiums of the Legion of Mary in China, India, Russia and many English-speaking countries with many hundreds of thousands of members.

What is particularly important about Kennedy's biography is that in dealing with Duff's creation of the Legion of Mary in the Twenties is that she exposes the gulf between hierarchy and laity at that time. In the first years of the Legion, Archbishop Walsh of Dublin fought a bitter battle against him. Duff had founded hostels in Dublin for derelict people. For many years Archbishop Ryan refused to allow mass to be said there. The fact that these derelict people included unmarried mothers was one reason given for downgrading the hostels. Another of Duff's major achievements was to break down a prostitution ring on the north side of the city and bring the girls to a house in Harcourt Street where they had a chance to restore themselves to the community. When he serialised an account of this episode in the Legion's monthly magazine, the archbishop censored it halfway through and tore the pages out. The two hostels for deprived people, The Morning Star and the Regina Coeli, did survive.

Duff was a higher civil servant until his mid-40s. He had served as secretary to Michael Collins. He had a high reputation and skills acquired in the Department of Finance enabled him to achieve and break through bureaucracy in a way that someone else might have failed, against the iron hand of the hierarchy at the time. But Duff didn't stop at this. He wanted to bring Protestants and Jews and Catholics together. He founded the Mercier Society for Protestants and The Pillar of Fire for Jewish people.

In the Forties, in the Mercier Society writers such as Frank O'Connor, Peadar O'Donnell, poet John Betjeman, Protestant intellectuals such as Archbishop Simms, William Bedell Stanford, professor of Greek at Trinity College and Dr WR Matthews, Dean of St Paul's, London. mingled. Open debate was encouraged.

The Pillar of Fire Society included leading medical figures from the Jewish community such as Bethel Solomons and Leonard Abrahamson, lawyers Herman Good and Bernard Shillman, and Laurence Elyan, a remarkable actor/director from the Gate Theatre.

But this wonderful leap into freedom was soon shackled. In less than two years Frank Duff was told by the archbishop that he must close both societies. One line from a directive from Rome sends a shiver down the back: "Protestants who assist at these meetings while they seek for declaration of doctrine must not on any occasion dare to defend the teachings and opinions of their own sect."

Duff, however, kept his organisation together on world level. His civil-service experience enabled him to confront twisted bureaucracy when he was opposed by it. Had he been alive today, I think he would have been thrilled by the Taoiseach's recent speech on the Cloyne Report. In it the abuse of power and refusal to recognise civil law by sections of the Church were condemned in a brilliant oration, which must, in my view, rank with DeValera's reply to Churchill in 1945 and Michael Collins' speech for the Treaty in the Dail in 1922.

In giving us this excellent biography of Frank Duff, Finola Kennedy has reminded us of fierce conflicts which existed between the laity and the Church in this country and of the real resistance to it.

There has been progress. Let's get on with it.

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