Interview 3

An Interview with Frank Duff

In this interview Frank Duff answers questions about the "roots" of the Legion of Mary. He reveals intimate details about himself and the apostolic works he had undertaken long before the Legion came into being in 1921. For example, he was doing visitation of the sick, street-contact work, instruction of children to receive the Sacraments and house-to-house visitation at least as far back as 1915.

Bill Peffley, President of the Philadelphia Senatus and composer of Mary Songs, hosted this interview which took place in Dublin on August



Q. We're here in the lovely city of Dublin, Ireland, headquarters of the Legion of Mary, continuing our series of exclusive interviews with Mr. Frank Duff. In this interview we hope to cover some of the prehistory of the Legion of Mary. We know that the Legion wasn't a pre-meditated organization-that it sprung out of its traditions. The reason for our interview with Mr Duff today is to explore some of those early traditions which are the roots of the present day Legion of Mary. But before we do that, I was wondering, Mr. Duff, if I could ask you several questions not directly related to our topic. What was it like at that first meeting? Did you actually get an assignment with young girls who were sent out on the work?

A. In a way, I did and in a way, I did not. They were being given something very new to do. They had not been doing that hospital visitation whereas I had been working away at a lot of personal tasks, things that nobody had assigned to me but which I had picked up, and one of those was the visitation of that hospital. I was doing that very work up to the time when they took it over and then I dropped from it.

But, of course, I had a whole multitude of miscellaneous work of my own picking up and there would fall to me the tackling of a whole lot of things that they would dig up. In that sense I was not a member of a team of the legionaries assigned specifically to a ward of the hospital. There were fifteen girls and in pairs they were assigned to wards at the rate of two apiece. I did not form a member of the team.

Actually my presence there constituted a sort of difficulty inasmuch as we were declaring on the first night that we were not going to take in men for the present. I suppose it's necessary to explain why, although that reason has been explained elsewhere, but then this is a separate interview. The reason was that we were meeting on St. Vincent de Paul premises and if we started recruiting men, we were certainly entering into a competition with them. They were eagerly looking for men. No doubt the man who would join us would be equally willing to join the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Well, competition with them in those circumstances was out of the question. That was going to be the limiting circumstance. As long as that would be the result of bringing in men, we would not bring them in. But, most definitely laid down was the fact that the Legion of Mary was not to be a women's organization alone.

Q. You had mentioned to me before this interview I began that being the only male member, you were there officially as a Tribune. Has that office passed  from the Legion's ranks?

A. Not completely because it remains on in name. The name is retained with a different office. At that time we were seeing the benefit of having an experienced man present at the branch of the Legion. We put it down on paper at a very early stage that such was a desirable thing and that every praesidium should have in it a man experienced in the system of the city, the social and charitable situation, and that he should be a member with the name of Tribune. Later on when circumstances changed and there would very   possibly   be men in every praesidium, that name was transferred to another set of  duties. Nowadays it means a person, either a man or a  woman, who is acting as spiritual director of a praesidium at the direction of the Spiritual Director. In other words, supposing, as it obtains in many places of the world, a priest has many praesidia under his care, he would appoint somebody who would act, as far as possible, in his place and that office is now known as the Tribune.

Q. I understand.

A. The name was too good to cast forth into oblivion. Now if you'll read up the handbook, you'll find a different set of duties attached to it.

Q. What about the expression Spiritual Guide which was used by some Legion groups?

A. This new expression (Tribune) supersedes the expression Spiritual Guide because Spiritual Guide assumes too much. It's an arrogant sort of title if you think it out. The office does not assume the state and stand of a priest. The Tribune is, in a peculiar sort of way, a shadow of the ancient idea of the Tribune who was to be an odd man out in the praesidium but one who was really justified. It's a shadow of the old idea. Or perhaps the old idea was the shadow (LAUGHS) of something more important that developed.

Q. How long did you stay in the first praesidium? When did you go onto another one?

A. I know I remained on in that praesidium for a very long time. In the first year four praesidia came into existence and I attended the meetings of all those four for a while. For a very long time I attended the parent meeting. Father Toher and Father Creedon were on the scene and as the praesidia began to come into existence, we more or less divided them up among ourselves trying to have at least one of us present at every meeting. When the first praesidium started outside Francis Street, I moved onto it in the capacity of Tribune. I continued to repeat this idea as new praesidia came into existence transferring over to the new one and that meant at one stage my dropping out of Myra House. They were always more or less all right because they had Father Creedon or Father Toher. But I did continue with them for a number of years and then only parted company perforce.

Q. You had mentioned in one of our off·camera conversations that you had done other works by yourself before the Legion ever began. Somebody told me that one of those was picketing a place downtown. Could you tell us about that?


That place was known as 6 1/2 Whitefriars Street. It was an exponent of that old, awful system known in Ireland as proselytizing. If you look the word up in the dictionary, you'll find that it means seeking conversions. But in Ireland it had the exclusive meaning of seeking them in an incorrect way, of buying them, using inducements of all descriptions to get the people. For instance, there was an elaborate dispensary here in Dublin, very well run, and the very poor were given first class medical treatment there provided they attended a service.

Q. So that's what proselytizing meant here in Ireland?

A. Free meals, free accommodation in hostels, all on this condition that they would lend themselves to attendances at non-Catholic services and that sort of thing.

The members of the St. Vincent de Paul conference in Whitefriars Street, that's the Carmelite one, got a letter from a very magnificent person called Tom McCabe. Tom McCabe was, incidentally, a very close friend of my own father and a fellow-official with him and a great member of the Vincent de Paul Society. This letter proceeded from him. It was quite direct. It took us to task. It said that at our own backdoor was a nest of proselytizing, the said 6 1/2 Whitefriars Street, and we were doing nothing about it and that must not continue. So, the president of the branch after reading the letter out, said: "That's true. We must amend it." Then he asked for a volunteer who would with him turn up the following Sunday and examine the position. I suppose I did not realize what I was letting myself in for but it was plenty!

At about half past seven the following Sunday morning, it was a cold morning, the two of us arrived there and after a while we saw the frequenters of the place begin to come up and go in. They were the most awful-looking crowd of poor creatures that could be thought of. Those were days of alarming poverty and these were the ultimate in the way of misery and they looked like something that had crawled from under stones.

Q. It must have been awkward for you to stand there and watch those poor souls.

A. Really, it was very awkward to watch. So, the two of us kept a count of those that were going in. After a while my companion picked on one of them and took her a way down the street to chat. He tried to find out something about how the place was run as I continued on counting.

While I was there, a woman came up to me, addressed me by name and said: "Are you interested in that place?" "Yes." "Well," she said, "if you're going to do anything about it, you should speak to Mr. Gabbett there. He's very interested." So I looked down to where she indicated and there was a very tall, powerful man with a fierce black mustache, a formidable looking man with his overcoat collar turned up. He was watching just as I was. There was a little bit of a lull in the proceedings and I moved on down to him. I'd never seen him before. His name was Gabbett which, strange to say, is not an unknown name in Ireland. It's a name of French origin. I told him that a woman had recommended me to talk to him if we were interested in this work and I said we were thinking of tackling it. Oh, he bent a very fierce glance upon me and he said yes, he was opening a counter institution the following Sunday, a coincidence of extraordinary quality. So, I remarked to him that, of course, we were not going to enter into any sort of competition with him. Our desire would be to help. And just at this moment my companion, John T. Lennon, returned and announced to me that he had got permission from the manager of the school, who was a Carmelite, to open up free breakfast there the following Sunday.

Q. What an incredible coincidence!

A. The school was exactly opposite 61/2, So, I then said that Mr. Gabbett was completely ready for that very enterprise. At once Lennon said: "Well, Mr. Gabbett we certainly are not going to start an opposition venture to you. But will you accept our aid? Will you let us pay for the whole enterprise?" You'd imagine that would be a great boon for Mr. Gabbett, who was a shoemaker and unbacked by organization, but he said, very independently indeed, that he was able to manage. Then Lennon asked would he accept our help, our personal help. Gabbett replied, a little reluctantly, that he would. So, all was arranged then. He said he had everything ready. It was arranged that the two of us would turn up the following Sunday and help. So, the following Sunday Gabbett came down to Mission Hall at 6 1/2 Whitefriars Street about perhaps the same time as we did and as each person came up to 6 1/2, he directed that person up to his own show which was waiting to receive them. The great majority of the people went up. That spoke very well for their good intentions for very probably they knew they might not get as much from Gabbett as they would from the institution. We took part in the whole serving of the meals and then betook ourselves sweeping brushes and we cleaned up. Now that continued Sunday after Sunday. Lennon who was not strong enough for all this extra work, especially the early rising and having to get to Mass without any breakfast and then all this working for hours, found it too much and he dropped out. But I, on the contrary becoming intimate with Gabbett, started coming to him on Saturday nights and helping him to prepare for the meal as well as cleaning up and all that sort of thing.

From that started a very close association between Gabbett and myself. He was a person whose like I had never before encountered. There was an intensity about his religion which was formidable. He looked on it, perhaps, as the present day legionary would. For him life had only one purpose and everybody should be found acknowledging that in their actions. I found this very impressive and I got the habit of dropping in to Gabbett if I had a free moment. You'll understand that I was a government employee which at that time necessitated my presence until 5:00 P.M. From that time on I really gave my evenings leaving the question of food to solve itself in peculiar ways. When it became too late to continue visiting the homes of the people, something I was doing on an extensive scale,-half past nine was becoming a little too late to go into their homes because working hours started very early in the morning in those days-I would drop in to Gabbett. And you'd ask, "What was Gabbett doing at that hour of the night?"

Q. Yes! You took the words right out of my mouth!

A. The answer was he was working. He was a craftsman. He was a bootmaker in a different sense to what it would be today. He made the whole business with his own hands.

Q. The total object, the whole thing! Marvelous!


It was the wartime, World War Number One, and he was a maker of officers' full-length boots. It was a wonder to watch him. You'd see perfect things such as we would imagine a machine only could do, emerging from his hands and you'd see the dreadful, painful labor that went into each little act. But he used to talk during his work. He was able to do that and his talk was about only one thing and that was the heavenly thing. I performed the secondary purpose of listening.

Q. (LAUGHS) Were you as impressed with his talk as you were with his bootmaking?

A. Most impressed. Now Gabbett was a member of the Pioneers, that's the Pioneer Total Abstinence Group, and, I suppose, it was he who led me into that. Anything that Gabbett would do had to be viewed seriously. He talked away and his thoughts were profound. But Gabbett could only write his name.

Q. He could only write his name! Is that right?

A. That's right. He had to do that because he had to put his name on receipts. Otherwise he could not write. But he could read anything! It was extraordinary. I completely won his heart by giving him presents of books. I remember that Father Faber was one of the authors I favored and he who had never got much in the way of a present was very much won by these things. But, however, I continued on in that place of his. Perhaps I'd better continue there, although it takes me a little off the main track ....

Q. That's all right. Please con·tinue with Mr. Gabbett.

A because in a way it touched the Legion. I proceeded to open up a lot of activities in his premises. You'll understand that the purpose for hiring these premises was to counter the proselytizing and that left the premises free for a whole week. Since nature abhors a vacuum, we began to fill up the place with activities devoted mainly to the instruction of children for the sacraments and to women. There was a lot of neglect in those days. I ran a class myself for boys and men. And the girls that we brought in had classes of one kind and another. We got a lot of movement there. In the corner of the main room of the place was a rather tasteful altar, drapes coming down, and a statue of the Immaculate Conception in the place of honor with flowers. This statue is the statue the Legion has in its showcase today.

Q. Where?

A. In the Concilium office.

Q. You mean Joe Gabbett's statue of our lady was the statue used at the first legion meeting?

A. Yes. He told me it was bought by a penny-a-head subscription from girls. He would not accept a penny from a man. And there it was. Well, that work took away practically everybody from 6 1/2 Whitefriars Street. He used to give them a little homily at every session. He had a tremendous way of talking to people. And then we came into 1916, our work having begun in that place sometime before. Let me tell you that the place bore a rather peculiar name of Number Nine Cheater's Lane.

Q. Cheater's lane?

A. Cheater's Lane. (LAUGHS) I used to think at the time that that was a corruption of the word, Chaytor, C-H-A-Y-T-O-R, which was a name at the time. But I looked it up subsequently in the ordinance sheets and it is spelled C-H-E-A-T-E-R, Cheater, seeming to indicate that there was a nest of cheaters there somewhere or other (LAUGHS). But when our own rebellion took place in that year, Gabbett was very outraged. He had been a veteran in the British Army and had served through twenty-one years in India.

Q. So he was outraged that the rebellion broke out against the very army he had served so long.


He was very outraged and although he was now at an age beyond physical compass, he joined the British Army. He shut down the place and joined the British Army. This he did without reference to me at all as if I was just a small boy in the matter. He told me quite casually that everything in the place was mine for he terminated the tenancy.

So, I took everything out of the place. There was nothing of very great value but I transferred it all up to Myra House. And most of that stuff in Myra House played an important part in the history of the Legion. It was very strange. For instance, the statue of St. Patrick we put on the mantel place of the principal room in the Myra House. I bought two brass candlesticks which flanked St. Patrick and at every meeting of St. Patrick's Conference and we lit two candles beside this statue. Those candlesticks are the candlesticks which were used at the first Legion meeting.

Q. Are they the ones with the statue of Our lady in the showcase?

A. They're the ones in the showcase. And I'm sure it would be that statue and the candlesticks which would have supplied inspiration for the Legion Altar to the girl who set it up.

Q. Is that so?

 A. Yes. Well, the statue of the Sacred Heart which is now down in the Concilium Office with the legend under it was also part of Gabbett's possessions. Look at the place it has today! The statue of Our Lady, strange to say, was not put to any special use at all in Myra House and stood there in some corner until the hands of Alice Keogh descended upon it and set it up on the altar for the first Legion meeting.

Q. Another extraordinary co-incidence

A. You know the peculiarity of all this is great. But at once, the shutting down of the premises for the free breakfast was attended by the flow-back to 61/2 White Friars Street of all its former clients . I reckoned to myself that something had to be done about this and I marched down and I started to picket the place , Between customers I said the rosary


As you walked the pavement?
A .... on the pavement marching up and down. And everybody who came up I went to and very meekly I suggested to them that it was sinful for a Catholic to take part in a Protestant Service and why would they do that? Why should they do a thing like that? So the answer I got was that they were hungry and they had to live. Sometimes it was spoken very nicely and sometimes it was spoken very roughly. Q. Oh I can well imagine the answer being spoken roughly! ( laughs )

A.( laughs ) And then I had to have recourse to something else.  I went up to a place that was roughly a mile away called the Little Flower Kitchen and the priest who was in charge of it used to give very cheap meals on weekday but nothing on Sundays I chatted with him and told him the need and he agreed to stage an ample breakfast on a Sunday morning for three pence.

Q. An ample breakfast for three pence? A . For three pence. But, of course, you must remember a penny was something in those days.

Q. It must have been to get an ample breakfast!

A. I contracted to pay his bill whenever he presented it to me. I possessed myself of a number of cards and I put my initials on each card, the card and initials formed a distinctive enough symbol. And anybody who would consent to turn away from 6 1/2, I gave an alternative breakfast. In this I was by myself. 

 Now I was by myself for quite a time. How long now precisely I'm not exactly able to say but it would be well over a year, I'm sure. I'd all sorts of adventures during that time. For instance, it was at a very early stage that a drunken sailor came along and I moved out in front of him in my usual manner and I said to him: "If you're a Catholic," I said, "it's improper to go into that place where you have to attend a Protestant Service." And before I knew what was happening, a knife was in his hand and he lunged at me

Q. What happened?

A. Well I was, so to speak, a sitting duck (LAUGHS) because I hadn't the slightest expectation of this. Undoubtedly, he would have killed me if he were sober. Undoubtedly, because there I was. As it was, when he lunged, he trembled and all that sort of thing and he missed me. And my retort (LAUGHS) would have done very good credit to Muhammed Ali (LAUGHS) because it flattened him out ... (LAUGHS)


You f
lattened him out? laughs

 A .... and here he was lying on the ground. I moved over in case he had sufficient energy to get up to resume hostilities (LAUGHS) but there was no further need for my intervention because a lady who was watching the proceedings from the other side of the road came up and what she didn't do to him was not worthwhile. (LAUGHS) She beat him and she kicked him until he was positively in terror. (LAUGHS) These sorts of episodes were not infrequent

Q. I never knew picketing could be so adventurous, so dangerous. A. You'll realize that I was young at the time. My wages were not of the present dimensions and at that time I was the maintenance of my family ....


You were the sole support of your family?

A. Yes. My father would be dead at that time and I was the happy provider for my family. When I settled my bills with the Little Flower establishment, I realized that I couldn't continue because the bill was happily going up every week.

Q ...

Three pence begins to add up.

 A. Yes. In other words, I was weaning them away all the time. Thinking things over I said to myself: "Well, from every point of view I had better terminate this." The St. Vincent de Paul Society, I knew from the previous old episode, the meeting with Gabbett, would be more than anxious to take over the work and to pay the bills. I knew that without having to ask anybody. So, I summoned a little meeting and it was remarkable that to this meeting came all the heads of the Society in Dublin.

Q. That is truly amazing!

A. Amazing. I was only making my way at the time, you know, but everyone including Sir Joseph Glenn, who was Supreme President for Ireland, Mr. Lalor and a whole lot more of them. Among them was one person whose name you heard mentioned recently in one of the interviews and that was Tom Fallon. Now Fallon was a man whose name was well known to me but whom I had never met, a giant, really a wonderful person. To say that I had no difficulty in persuading them would be an absurdity because they were only too anxious to help. And they agreed to pay any bills I had to pay. They were very full of gratitude for the work being done and at the end of the proceedings Tom Fallon came up to me and he asked me, would I permit him to come around on Sundays and join me?

Q. Not only were they willing to pay the bills but they also wanted to help you with the work.

A. I was grateful for that. That partnership continued for some time. And then another and another and another came along and after 6 1/2 years of picketing, the place shut down. The number had been reduced to a small handful and the organizers of the thing decided to amalgamate it with a similar enterprise being carried on on  the north side of the city in the Metropolitan Hall-a bigger one. They thought they'd surprise us by a rapid secret transfer communicated only to the small group that was there on the last day. But somebody blew the gaff to us and we were waiting on the picket line the following day (LAUGHS) when they came. And so that was the end of 6 1/2 Whitefriars. Now the number concerned in the main, at its maximum, was a hundred and fifty.

Q. One hundred and fifty!

A. That's the number concerned. Then we started off to picket the Metropolitan Hall.

Q. How many persons were going into the Metropolitan Hall for the free breakfast?

A. The initial number was 250 . After 161/2 years of picketing that place also shut down. I had dropped out of that work before its end.

Q. And was it the Legion of Mary that continued the picketing?

A. Yes. It was a very wonderful fact that it was out of that picketing group that I derived the organizers and workers of the Morning Star.

Q. That's extraordinary!

A. Very, very extraordinary!

Q. It's interesting to see how those events of yesteryear led up to the Legion of today.


Oh, yes, it's very interesting because there's this queer note of connection at work. So, wait now, where did I diverge?

Q. Before we close the program, I'd like to ask you about Joe Gabbett. What ever happened to him?

A. As I told you, Gabbett was too old for combat and so they sent him to Aldershot which is one of the main military establishments of England and there they spotted his form. There was a man in charge there, Brigadier General Perrira, who was a Catholic. Perrira saw Gabbett's quality as a craftsman and he made him mastershoemaker. He used him only to organize the shoemaking side of things, principally for lecturing to the officers and men on footwear and feet, how to take care of both. Gabbett would, of course, be very good at that. Perhaps, if I have a moment, I'd better finish off with Gabbett, if I might. Before he was sent off to England Gabbett was on what he called his state of work (LAUGHS) and one day a gentleman called Pope, not the Pope, (LAUGHS) came into his workshop and told Gabbett an extraordinary story about what was known in those days as Portobello Barracks. There were at that time two battalions of the Lancashire Fusilliers stationed in that barracks. There was in a railed-off corner of the barracks area a hospital for men suffering from venereal disease. It was the rule in those days that a man found to be suffering from that disease went under automatic arrest, was put into a hospital and they were very pernickety about letting anybody go near them. He could have no visitors. There were 200 men in that hospital who were roughly divided as according to the designations of the day: COE, which meant Church of England; RC, which I haven't got to explain to you, and NC. Now NC meant Non-Conformist.

Q. I'm glad you explained that.

A. Into that third category went anybody who wasn't in the other two respectable categories (LAUGHS). They were all lumped together for Divine Service on a Sunday. Whether they were Methodists, Presbyterians or what else they were, they were all marched off to the one place. Now every Sunday there was a service. The COE people had their own chaplain. The Catholics had a nominal chaplain but he didn't know of the existence of the place. At any rate he had his Masses to say in the parish church. So, they were accidently neglected. You see, the other people, the NC's had a chaplain of their own too. Now, Pope was the COE's chaplain's assistant and he came down and told Gabbett about the apparent neglect of the Catholics which had rendered them very wild. And actually tract-droppers and proselytizers were at work among them. Gabbett in those conditions would be a man of few words. He got up, put on his coat and he accompanied Mr. Pope up to the barracks and he wormed his way in there. He got into the enclosure and found what was at stake and then went down to the nominal chaplain and told him everything. Father O'Loughlin, who was the brother of Mrs. Kirwan, the future first President of the Legion, appointed Gabbett as his lay assistant which gave him a status and the right to enter the barracks. So, Gabbett then went to the barracks authorities and claimed a barrack room for the service and that had to be granted. Then he came up the next Sunday, having given notice, and he put the statue on the mantelpiece with two candles and he held the first service. Now only twenty men turned up to that out of approximately seventy Catholics because they were very annoyed. They were on strike in other words. Gabbett held on in his inimitable style. Later on he involved me in that and ... Have I to stop? ...

Q. .

No, not yet. We still have a few minutes.


and I used to go up in the humble capacity of a listener. But then I used to get busy among the men; contacting them. I remember being frequently contacted by the orderlies up there objecting to my shaking hands with the men. Did I understand the risk? And my answer was that I did but that I found it impossible to talk in a friendly manner to a man without (LAUGHS) shaking hands with him. But it had the very useful role of teaching me to think on that subject. After I had shaken hands with the men, I used to regard myself as unclean. It taught me to remember not to touch my eyes or my mouth or any of these delicate parts. The danger was there alright and when Sancta Maria opened up subsequently, I was there to give them the necessary advice and to provide against the risks with the result that in the whole history of Sancta Maria nobody ever caught anything.

Q. So your work in Portobello Barracks helped protect the workers in Sancta Maria. Another link. Please continue.

A. But then we were working away at that and the Catholics started coming to the service until we had the full number of them attending every Sunday ...

Q. The full seventy!

A ....

and cases began to emerge in abundance. I have seen the operation of getting a man into the church inside 24 hours.

Q. Why so quickly?

A. You see, once a man was declared cured, he might be gone within an hour. Experienced soldiers were urgently needed out in France. So, that's why they had to get through the reception of a man quickly.

Q. I see. It's intriguing to see how these characters form a part of the pre·history of the Legion. You touched on something today which we are looking forward to hearing about next time and that is the Sancta Maria Hostel and how it came into being. There is a saying that every movement has an initiator and that initiator holds the seeds of what's to come in the future. In this particular seg ment we have seen that in a very rich and charming way. So, we want to thank you, Mr. Duff, for your time today, and we hope to get together with you very soon again.

A. Thank you, Bill.

 This interview is available on video-cassettes and audiocassettes from:

Concilium Legionis Mariae, Morning Star Avenue, Brunswick Street, Dublin 7, Ireland.