Frank Duff

Servant of God: Frank Duff and his Cavan Ancestry

In life there are those who try to make changes for the betterment of society whether it’s motivated by altruism, spiritual desire, or otherwise. Famous leaders who shared this mindset were Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln. On the religious front, one may speak of Mother Teresa of Calcutta who did much to alleviate the pain and suffering in India and for her sacrifice she received the Nobel Peace prize in 1979 and was then beatified by the Catholic church following her death in 1997. Today, she is remembered and acknowledged as Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

In Ireland, a man of a similar kindly manner who sought God’s help in caring for the poorest and most overlooked people in Irish society was Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary. For him, the work of looking after the less privileged was a privilege.

Currently, we live in a tired world that has drifted into a state of cynicism and unhappiness, with a tendency to question and judge everything more closely and yet, I suppose, the intention to do something useful is still better than doing nothing at all. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to hurl abuse whilst seated on the ditch.

My first encounter with the amazing story of Frank Duff was through my good friend Tom Coyle, who spoke of him with great admiration, telling me about his life, his writings and in particular his booklet, ‘Can we become Saints?’, an everyday life guide to doing the little things well, both at home and in work and by showing kindness to the people you meet each day. He was also, according to him, a great man to cycle around Dublin city, the place where he lived and could be seen going about his business in what we would now consider to be a more climate friendly manner. From the age of 18, Frank Duff worked for the Civil Service.

Just lately, I discovered that Frank Duff’s maternal side of the family had connections not only with County Meath, but that he also had family links to Cavan. Although Tom died many years ago, I began thinking to myself, how interested he would have been in talking about Frank Duff’s Cavan relatives.

Holy Rosary Sisters

On 29th January 1955, the Killeshandra news in The Anglo-Celt reported on two people who were making headlines at home and abroad who were described to readers as the distinguished visitors of the Sisters of the Holy Rosary Convent. They were, firstly, Fr Austin McGrath who served with the Maynooth Mission to China, and had fallen foul of the Chinese authorities who sentenced him to solitary confinement where they tortured him because of his faith; and secondly, Fr Francis Ripley who was ‘preaching Christianity’ through a correspondence course which had reached 5,000 people in a single year. During the priests’ visit to the convent, they were accompanied in their travels by none other than the President of the Legion of Mary, Mr Frank Duff, himself.

Cavan family history

In 1899, Francis (Frank) Michael Duff was one of six children born to John and Susan Letitia Freehill Duff who lived in Phibsboro Road, Dublin. Frank Duff’s County Meath connections are elaborated on by Noel French in an engrossing article published online on the Meath Hub website where he stated that Susan Freehill, was baptised in Trim on November 14, 1863, the daughter of Michael Freehill and Susan Devey Freehill (Frank’s maternal grandparents).

Tragically, of the 11 children born to Michael and Susan, six of them died before their daughter Susan’s birth and a headstone in Newtown graveyard commemorates four of the children. Frank’s maternal grandparents lived in Trim, where Michael was the first headmaster of the local Model School. Noel French noted that Michael Freehill had Cavan roots but did not expand on the theme which then got me thinking and I did a little digging to find out more, and lo and behold there was more. Frank’s grandfather Michael Francis Freehill was from Ballyconnell, County Cavan, where he was born in 1822 to Francis and Mary Freehill. Michael had a brother Thomas, known as Tommy, who eventually left Ballyconnell too, and according to he emigrated to the West Indies to work before moving to America where he lived out his final years in Nevada. From the humblest of beginnings in Ballyconnell, Thomas Freehill had amassed a fortune by the time of his death in 1886 and left an estate worth ‘over $500,000’. He died in 1886 having never married and the only relative he had in Virginia City was a nephew named Frank Golden. His remains were buried in the Masonic Section of Virginia City Cemetery. His story deserves to be told in a separate column.

Michael Freehill also had a sister named Catherine who emigrated to California. Recently, I also learned from Anne-Maree Whitaker about a person named Patrick Freehill from Snugboro, Ballyconnell, who achieved great success in Australia and wondered if he was one of the same Freehills as Frank Duff’s grandfather.

Frank Duff, as one article succinctly put it, was a concerned citizen who cared for the ‘neglected and rejected’ in society. Truly a visionary, his legacy included the establishment of the Legion of Mary in 1921 and the opening of a mother and baby home with a difference because his home named the Regina Coeli Hostel actually allowed mothers to keep their babies while encouraging them to work to feed themselves and the infant. In 1922, Frank convinced the government to buy a building on Harcourt Street which he transformed into a safehouse for prostitutes who wanted to escape the life they lived. Duff was prepared to encourage dialogue between Christians and Jews, to reach out to people who were homosexual through a praesidium he set up, and to make stronger connections with people in the travelling community. Today, the Legion of Mary is a major global organisation with around 5 million members. For many years, from the 1950s to the 1970s the Librarian and historian Sara Cullen was a prominent leader of a branch that was formed in Cavan town. A respected local historian she wrote ‘Books and Authors of County Cavan’, published by Cavan County Council in 1965, a book which helped put Cavan on the map.

In next week’s column I will take a further look at the life of Frank Duff’s granduncle, Tommy Freehill who worked on a sugar plantation, and at Patrick Freehill, who took the boat for Australia.