The Legion of Mary was founded in Myra House on Francis Street, in September 1921. This organisation would have a massive effect on the city of Dublin, spearheading the campaign to close the notorious Monto district. Today, the Legion of Mary has over 4 million active members and 10 million auxiliary members, in more than 170 countries across the world. It began its life in Dublin, founded by the quiet civil servant Frank Duff. Born in Dublin in 1889, and described by historian Terry Fagan in his history of Monto as a “sombre-suited civil servant”, Duff’s organisation would become a leading player in Irish life for a time, as a mass movement of Catholic action.
The Legion of Mary began life as the Association of our Lady of Mercy, born in Myra Hall, as an organisation dedicated to visitations and promoting the Catholic faith. Frank Duff’s biographer Fionla Kennedy quotes Duff as stating the first meeting of the group consisted of fifteen people, of which thirteen were women. The group had strong links to the Saint Vincent de Paul society at the time of its foundation, and intended to assist laypeople in serving and advancing the cause of the Catholic Church.
The Legion of Mary would be the forefront of the campaign to close Dublin’s infamous red-light district in the first half of the 1920s. Known in popular Dublin history as Monto, this area took its name from Montgomery Street, located just off Talbot Street. Montgomery Street, Purdon Street, Mecklenburgh Street, Mabbot Street and others were often referred to collectively as Monto, with the area notorious at the beginning of the twentieth-century not only for its shocking levels of poverty but also the levels of prostitution found there.
The reputation of this area would lead to name changes historically, and following the construction of the ill-fated Corporation Buildings in the early twentieth century, Dublin Corporation set about attempting to change the name of Montgomery Street to Corporation Street, as this 1905 proposal from the Paving Committee shows:
We believe the great improvement effected in the street by the Corporation, together with the change of name, will have the desirable effect of obliterating its evil reputation. We therefore request and pray that it may be called Corporation-Street, as the great change for the better has been effected by the Corporation.
In the end, Montgomery Street was rechristened as Foley Street, in honour of John Henry Foley, the sculptor and one of the areas most famous sons. A change of name did little to change the character of the area however, and the misfortunes of those living there.
Between 1923 and 1925, the Legion of Mary made frequent interventions into the heart of Monto. These interventions were motivated by Duff’s familiarity with the suffering of some of Dublin’s prostitutes. Diarmaid Ferriter has quoted Duff’s first recollections of visiting a brothel in his study Occasions of Sin:Sex and Society in Modern Ireland:
For a moment, I did not realise where I was. Then I saw, and I was so intimidated that I actually backed out without uttering a word. My retreat was typical of the attitude to the problem at the time. We were not without constant reminders of the problem and of the menace it afforded.
Terry Fagan’s study of Monto is in my view the definitive history of the area, and in it he notes that Duff’s attempts to draw young women away from prostitution would lead to the establishment of the Sancta Maria Hostel on Harcourt Street. In a building which had been a former premises for the Sinn Féin party and which had been used by Michael Collins, a hostel opened which aimed to lure young women away from prostitution.
When Garda Commissioner William Murphy drew up a 1925 report on the problem in prostitution in the city,he noted that brothels in the ‘Monto’ operated essentially “without much let or hindrance on the part of the police authorities”. This situation was finally only confronted by state forces, following the persistence and pressure of Duff and the Legion, leading Garda Commissioner William Murphy to arrange a large-scale police raid on Monto for March 12th 1925. The Irish Independent of March 13th 1925 noted that ‘Dublin police, as a result of a midnight swoop on a congested district in the northern area, last night made 120 arrests, those arrested being mostly young men and women.’ As Maria Luddy has noted in her study of prostitution in Irish society however, of the 120 arrests, only two would be charged, with one receiving a six-week sentence.
Following the closure of the Monto, a solemn blessing of the area was organised by the Legion of Mary, for the following Sunday. As Terry Fagan has noted, this blessing involved hundreds who marched from the Pro-Cathedral, and as they marched through the district a picture of the sacred heart was nailed to the door of each one-time brothel. Frank Duff, at the back wall of Corporation Buildings, proceeded to hang a huge crucifix to the wall, sending a clear message that the days of Monto were well and truly over.
While it is undoubtedly with this chapter in Dublin’s history that the Legion of Mary are most closely associated, the organisation remained a considerable force in Irish life, praised for example for Pope Pius XI in the 1930s for their efforts. Today, the Legion has members in regions as diverse as the Congo and South Korea. Frank Duff died in November 1980 at the age of 91, and is today buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
While this plaque may be on the southside of the city, every time I pass it it’s the troubled history of an area of the north inner-city I think of.