“In short, in every circumstance of special difficulty, or in
face of danger, the legionary should remind himself: “A war is on”!
This phrase that nerves a war-ridden people to sacrifice,
should steel the legionary in his warfare for souls and hold
him to his work when most others would desist”
– Legion of Mary Handbook
A century ago last week, an organisation of global importance was formed in an unassuming townhouse adjacent to a meat factory in the Dublin Liberties. With modest surroundings but audacious goals, the Legion of Mary set forth with its energetic generation of founders to reshape the relationship of the laity to the Faith and in turn imprint itself upon global Catholicism.
On the nativity of Mary 1921, an assembly of 15 Catholics of which 13 were women gathered before a statue of the Virgin to say the Rosary. Following a decision to put into practice devotion to Mary into worldly actions, efforts were then made to visit residents of a local Hospital to provide spiritual uplift. They documented their good deeds and endeavoured to formalise a structure that would better include the laity and female members of the Church.
Therein birthed one of the most remarkable organisations of the 20th century.
Often the butt of many jokes for their devotion to the Blessed Virgin, the Legion, even if waning in its homeland, has grown to become a global force, especially in the nations of the Global South with a total membership of 10 million worldwide. While secular institutions have faltered consistently in this country, the Legion remains one of the great organisational success stories of the past century.
A Catholic lay organisation, the goal of which was to reimpregnate society with the love of the Virgin, the Legion gained prominence in the early years of the state with its dynamic founder Frank Duff. A civil servant under Sir Corneillius Gregg and briefly General Collins, Duff embraced a particular brand of Marianism preached by St. Louis Grignion de Montfort which he enacted his entire adult life.
Dubliners of a certain age will recall the famous book barrow of O’Connell Street with generations of Irish children growing up with Miraculous Medals bestowed upon them for their First Holy Communion. There is no individual in Ireland without a family member who hasn’t passed through their ranks at some stage. The Reverend Ian Paisley in some of his more paranoid sectarian screeds used to accuse the Legion of operating a type of Catholic shadow state on both sides of the border.
These nostalgic associations, while sincere, blur the rather seriousness of the Legion’s inception and worldview. Formed right at the genesis of the Irish State, the Legion played a cardinal role in the militant Catholic milieu of the 1920s and 1930s that could have very well altered the political trajectory of post-Independence in creating a corporatist state along the lines of Salazar’s Portugal, but which nevertheless changed the social fabric of the new State for the better.
Breaking barriers with regards to the use of women, the Legion spread across the nation like a religious prairie fire, first establishing itself in the Archdiocese of Dublin and then expanding globally.
‘What I like most about the Legion of Mary is that it knows how to use the Little people,’ so spoke Pope Paul VI, rightly evaluating the policy outlook of the Legion regarding the inclusion of all aspects of the Church.
The Legion is governed then as now by its Handbook, written in part by Duff himself. Demarcating the structure from its ruling central council (concilium legionis) to national councils (curia) the true beating heart of the Legion has always been the local branches (praesidium)
Far from the cheap stereotypes of modern Ireland, the Legion was spearheaded by women who made up the majority of original members. Of the founding set of Legionnaires assembled at Myra House were women such as Clare-born Edel Quinn, who dedicated their lives to the spiritual uplift of East Africa through a lifetime of missionary work.
Upon formation, the first task facing the Legion was facing the blot of prostitution in Dublin’s seedy red light district at the Monto. Made famous through Ulysses, the Monto had been an enshrined den of sinfulness as generations of women and children had found themselves enslaved to the whims of garrisoned British troops and passing joes.
With Legionaries first making contact with women desiring a break from the industry, attempts were made to secure work and accommodation to facilitate their departure. Once Duff and the Legion experienced backlash however a more forceful outlook was taken, with a base of operations established at Belvedere Hotel to begin canvassing work alongside the Saint Vincent de Paul.
Facing much opposition not just from local pimps but by members of the policing establishment who had seen much silver cross their palms in allowing the operation of the Monto occur, the district’s brothels were formally shut down on the 12th of March 1925 with images of the Blessed Virgin being nailed to the doors of former whorehouses.
Recounted in a 1961 book, ‘Miracles on Tap’ Frank Duff recalled close to his deathbed that one of his proudest moments in this mortal life was surviving some of the physical confrontations experienced in the closing down of the brothel district.
The doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ underpins the entirety of the Legion, namely that the divine personage of Christ and the relationship of each individual low and high to it is the defining element of Christianity. Even taking primacy over ethics and the code of Sacraments.
Active in the creation of numerous homeless shelters many of which are active to this day, many of the city’s destitute lay their heads down at Legion run institutions such as the Morning Star Hostel on Brunswick Street. As in most Catholic organisations most of the charity work is done without fanfare or laudation by the popular press.
Duff’s biographer Finola Kennedy likened the man to a modern day CEO in the form of a Catholic evangelist. An observer to the Second Vatican Council, Duff’s organisational prowess has so far been unsurpassed by any Irishman with a spiritual empire being created from the Dublin slumlands to the jungles of Manila directed almost all by one man.
Despite its Irish roots, the Legion was embroiled itself in great geopolitical struggles, most notably against the regime of Chairman Mao. The life story and resilience of Legionnaire Fr Aedan McGrath who stood up for his faith when combating the communist regime earned him many years in Chinese dungeons and proscription of the Legion by authorities.
The Ireland that birthed the Legion is long since passed. Juxtaposed between a garish open borders advertisement decrying Direct Provision and a trendy hipster bar, the Legion’s birthplace humbly sits on Francis Street with a statue of Our Lady facing out onto the Ireland that has largely forgotten her.
On the anniversary of the Legion’s founding I made a conscious effort to quietly pray the Rosary outside its former Liberties stomping crowd where Duff and company stood stalwart against the forces of poverty, injustices and spiritual subversion. In a working class area of Dublin gradually being gobbled up by demographic change and polite gentrification, the Legion has faded to the role of cultural artefact rather than a major cog in the city’s social life.
For all the scoffing modern Ireland directs at its Catholic heritage, us moderns can scarcely hold a candle to the Legion and its works. When moss is growing over the NGO complex expect the Legion to persevere perhaps even to drag Irish society from the abyss a second time.
I just wonder what Frank Duff and the Legionaries who smashed up the Monto brothels would make of OnlyFans….