Frank Duff founded the Legion of Mary on 7 September 1921. The Legion of Mary is a lay Catholic organisation whose members give service to the Church on a voluntary basis. The members participate in the life of the parish through visitation of families, the sick, both in their homes and in hospitals and through collaboration in every apostolic and missionary undertaking sponsored by the parish. Finola Kenny, whose biography of Duff, was published earlier this year quoted an Irish Times article which described Duff as the ‘founder of the largest international association that has originated in Ireland, certainly in modern times.’ Archbishop Dermot Ryan said ‘Frank Duff must be recognised as one of the greatest Catholics of this century.’ Mr. Justice Declan Costello once described Frank Duff as the ‘greatest Irishman of our time.’
Frank Duff was born in Dublin in 1889, the eldest of seven children to John and Susan Duff. Both parents had Meath roots.
Frank Duff’s maternal grandfather, Michael Freehill, was the first headmaster of the Model School in Trim and his uncle was the second headmaster. In 1846 the Parish Priest of Trim, Fr. O’Connell, and the Church of Ireland Rector, Rev. Richard Butler, applied to the State for a Model School be established in Trim. Their application was successful and this school was opened in 1850. It is now part of the community school in Trim. Michael Freehill was appointed headmaster of the new Model School in Trim on 7th May 1850. His appointment was historical as he was the first Catholic to be appointed headmaster of a state-run school. The Catholic Church at the time opposed the establishment of the new model school system.
Michael had Cavan roots. Married to Susan Devey, Devey gravestone in Newtown, together they had eleven children. Michael Freehill erected a headstone in Newtown graveyard, Trim to commemorate his four children who died at an early age. Frank died aged two and a half in 1855, Maria died aged six and a half in 1860, Anna died aged four and a half in 1861 and Emily died aged five months in 1862. Frank Duff’s mother, Susan Letitia Freehill, was baptised in Trim on 14th November 1863. All her six older siblings had died before her birth.
Frank’s father, John, was the son of Francis Duff and Sarah Byrne. The Duff family worked on the Dunsany estate. Frank’s uncle, Edward (Ned), was born in Culmullin. The Duffs resided at the Rock, Freffans, Trim and Frank spent many of his holidays in Trim. Frank’s uncle, also Frank Duff, resided at Freffans Little, Trim and was a land steward. Frank Duff married Mary Reynolds of Clonfane and they had one daughter, Carmel, who worked with Aer Lingus and now lives in Dublin.
Frank Duff often recalled that he spent his first holiday in Navan at the home of his sister, Dr. Geraldine Monahan, in Brewshill. Dr. Monahan was a distinguished eye specialist and married Dr. Robert Monahan in 1928 and the couple moved to Navan where Robert became medical officer at Our Lady’s Hospital, Navan. Dr. Geraldine Monahan was ophthalmic surgeon for Meath and also carried out a private practise at Moatlands until she died in 1975. Frank’s youngest sister, Ailis, died at her sister’s home in Navan in 1951. Many people in Navan were familiar with Frank Duff as her visited the town regularly and they recalled his sense of humour and keen intellect. On one of his visits in October 1955 Duff gave a talk entitled ‘The Irish in England’ at the C.Y.W.S. Hall, Navan.
Frank’s father was a civil servant and so was his mother. She had the distinction of passing the first examination in the old British and Irish Civil Service open to women and she was appointed to London. After working for a time there, she was transferred to Dublin where she met John Duff, who was a former pupil of her father, Michael Frehill. Their first child, Francis Michael, was born in June 1889. Frank Duff attended Belvedere College and Blackrock College. In 1907 he joined the civil service and was assigned to the Irish Land Commission. Frank Duff worked on the Land Act of 1923. Duff acted very briefly as secretary to Michael Collins and bid him farewell as he left Dublin on his final journey. Duff retired from the service in 1934 with the rank of Assistant Principal, to devote his time to the Legion. Frank’s brother, John, became secretary to the Department of Justice.
Frank joined the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in 1913 at the age of 24. Frank attended two Masses daily from 1914 until the day he died. He worked with the poor in Dublin and established a breakfast centre for poor Catholics where they could be fed.
In attendance at the first Legion of Mary meeting in September 1921 were Frank Duff, Father Toher and thirteen women. The first president was Elizabeth Kirwin. The first work was visitation of patients in South Dublin Union Hospital. The Legion attempted to tackle social problems such as homelessness and prostitution. Hostels such as the Sancta Maria, Morning Star and Regina Coeli were opened to serve poor men, destitute women, unmarried mothers, and their children. Lone mothers were assisted to keep their children, a stance which was opposed by the church at the time. The Legion flourished both at home and abroad. The first rural praesidium of the Legion was founded by Frank Duff at Kill, Enfield
At the invitation of Pope Paul VI Duff attended the second Vatican Council as an observer. In his lifetime he had met and received the blessing of five Popes – including that of John Paul II – all of whom have expressed deep appreciation of the work he had done for the Church by virtue of the organisation he founded.
Duff was a noted letter writer, a total of 33,000 survive. Most related to serious Legion business but some have a lighter side. Kennedy’s book records a Limerick lady writing to Duff deploring the wearing of trousers by women. To the surprise of his correspondent Duff replied that there was no more decent garb than trousers and saying that trousers provided a favourable contrast to extra short skirts.
Frank died in November 1980 at the age of ninety one and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. In 1996 the cause for his canonisation was introduced by the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Desmond Connell.