AN UPDATED HISTORY OF
THE ANCIENT ORDER OF HIBERNIANS IN AMERICA
by Mike McCormack, National Historian
This updated history of the origins and activities of the Ancient Order of Hibernians was completed by the National Historian’s Office in June, 2018. Many well-meaning authors have tried to record the genesis of the Order as they heard it from their elders or from those they considered knowledgeable, but memories of old men and hearsay recollections from their sons and others are poor foundations on which to build a history. However, history is not just a ‘thing of the past’; history is a living study. Archaeology and technology constantly revise old beliefs, confirm former myths and reveal the truths behind what was once considered legend. In addition, advances in digital technology, like computers and the Internet, make formerly unobtainable and out of print documents available allowing us to search for and double-check references and provide validation of source data not previously practical. Today’s digital domain is a tremendous resource for researchers. We are in a better position today to evaluate what early authors wrote about our history by returning to the primary sources that they themselves used and some that they were not even able to access. We also have more recent studies by scholars based on modern research. This presentation contains the latest information gleaned from 25 years of first-hand research into the works of validated historians, interviews with knowledgeable experts and personal experience. The research will continue and more data will be added in the future as we grow, but this is as accurate as can be presented at this time. The information contained in this presentation is divided into the following categories:
IN THE BEGINNING
THE IRISH IN EARLY AMERICA
SECRET SOCIETIES EXPORTED
THE AOH IS BORN
DISCORD IN THE ORDER
THROUGH THE YEARS
SUPPORT OF THE CHURCH
THE AOH AND EDUCATION
REMEMBERING THE GREAT HUNGER
THE AOH IN AMERICA TODAY
IN THE BEGINNING
In 1171, the Normans invaded Ireland. As they settled into the inviting Irish life-style, many began to adopt Irish ways and customs – including adherence to the Brehon Laws of the Irish instead of Norman Feudal law. It has even been said that ‘they became more Irish than the Irish themselves.’ However, it was not until the Tudor invasions robbed them of the lands that they had stolen that they became ‘as Irish as the Irish themselves’, but NEVER more Irish! To forestall such assimilation, the Crown invoked the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367 forbidding their subjects to adopt Irish customs and traditions. This not only assigned a preferred status to the Norman invaders, but relegated the Irish to a subordinate class in areas under Norman control. Conflicts arose as the Normans attempted to extend those areas.
After Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome in 1533, he declared the Church of England as the State religion. When Elizabeth I came to power in 1558, she enforced that declaration throughout her empire, of which she considered Ireland to be a part – although the Irish did not agree! Religion thereafter became one more weapon in the conflict over confiscation of Irish land. Her Protestant Parliament amended the Statutes of Kilkenny to add new restrictions and punishments for non-compliance. Then, a Protestant Reformation swept Europe marked by Royal intrigues over control of the Roman Church’s wealth and conflicts over which religion could be practiced. Violence erupted in many countries as the Papacy launched a counter-reformation. Ireland became a battlefield between the two forces as the Irish, who embraced the Church introduced by St. Patrick, became the target of a campaign to reduce Rome’s power by turning the masses to the Church of England. The persistence with which the Irish clung to their religion drove the English to extremes in repression. In 1607, after the Williamite War, Penal Laws were imposed on the native Irish disenfranchising them from political, educational and economic life in their own country. Member of Parliament (MP) Edmund Burke described them as: a machine as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man. With their religion outlawed and clergy on the run, the Irish became an underground society practicing their religion in secret. Not surprisingly, they also fought back.
Among the earliest opponents were Rory Oge O’More and Conor MacCormac O’Conor who, according to the Calendar of Carew Papers, 1515-74, began to gather friends and confederates, to the number of 100 swords, and so to revolt against English incursion in their lands. As the invasions and conflicts became more religious-oriented, the Irish formed secret societies to protect the values under attack. Groups with names like Whiteboys, Blackfeet and Defenders were identified with attacks on landlords and each included in its purpose the protection of the Roman Church and its clergy.
In time, as government prevailed, some societies were suppressed, but reorganized under new names for the same defense of faith and homeland. History provides us with the names of these societies, but limited details. However, it is believed that the motto of the 1790 Defenders was Friendship, Unity, and True Christian Charity, but the secrecy in which they operated left few records for modern analysts. As a result, a true history of their times may never be written. However, according to Professor Kevin Kenny in his Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (Oxford Press, 1998), we do know that: Whiteboyism became a term used to describe agrarian violence in general. In the 19th century another term was used as a catchall for rural violence and that was Ribbonmen, even though there was also a distinct organization called the Society of Ribbonmen. That Society was an outgrowth of the Defenders. Eventually Ribbonmen attracted a collection of Catholic agrarian secret societies whose purpose was to safeguard tenants’ rights. The societies were variously known by such names as St. Patrick’s Boys, the Sons of the Shamrock and others; they began to coalesce into branches of the parent Ribbon organization.
THE IRISH IN EARLY AMERICA
As a result of the persecution endured at home, many Irish fled to other lands seeking a better life. Those who chose America often wondered if they had made the right decision. Colonial America was an extension of England in language, customs and traditions and, although American historians claim religious freedom, that freedom did not include Catholics. These were still English colonies and while they tolerated other Protestant sects, they denounced Catholics because of a biased belief that they owed their allegiance to a foreign prince – the Pope. Some Irish changed their family name and religion to avoid intimidation against their loved ones and some even adopted the counterfeit designation of ‘Scotch-Irish’, to distinguish themselves from those who courageously refused to hide their heritage. As the Irish lent their hand to the winning of independence, they became tolerated, but only to a degree. The first banner raised by the Sons of Liberty in New York was inscribed at the bottom No Popery. Not much changed after independence either. Catholics were barred from public office until they swore a Test Oath renouncing the authority of the Pope and other Catholic doctrines. This was the America to which a steady flow of Irish emigrated after the failed rising of 1798 and the Great Hunger of 1845.
As the Irish population grew, anti-Catholic forces celebrated Pope Day, carrying straw effigies of St. Patrick on March 17 which were desecrated to taunt Irish Catholics. The new American-Irish were quick to defend their honor; reaction was swift and violence was a result. Objections from the growing Irish population finally forced the city to ban such effigies in 1802. In 1806, NY State Assemblyman DeWitt Clinton passed a bill that abolished the Test Oath which angered nativist forces and, on Christmas Eve, they attacked St. Peter’s – the first Catholic Church in New York State. They were held off by the Irish community whose homes were subsequently attacked and burned.
Anti-Catholic bigotry, cloaked in the guise of American patriotism, emerged in a period of extreme intolerance in the early 1800s that began with social segregation, resulted in discrimination in hiring and housing and concluded in the formation of nativist gangs such as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, the True Blue Americans and others bent on violence against the Irish Catholic immigrant population. These gangs coalesced in 1854 into the American Party or Know Nothings. Reminiscent of the penal laws in Ireland, they sought legislation against the immigrants who, it was stated, diluted American principles. The growing numbers of Irish were driven to the most demanding forms of labor where even minimal safety, salary and welfare standards were ignored. As nativist prejudice grew, St. Mary’s Church – third oldest in NY City – was torched in 1831. In 1832, 57 Irish railroad workers sought help for a few suffering from Cholera near Malvern, PA and were not only refused aid, but all 57 were assaulted, killed and dumped in unmarked mass graves; in 1834, the Ursaline Convent in Massachusetts was burned down; while in 1834 and 35, nativist gangs attacked the Irish neighborhood of Five Points in NY City resulting in major street brawls that lasted for days.
Not surprisingly, societies which had been formed as benevolent, fraternal organizations to care for their own, assumed the responsibility of protecting the values under attack. In various areas, groups like the O’Connell Guards in 1836 Manhattan, NY; the Hibernian Friendship Society in 1831 Arlington, VA; the Society of St. Patrick in 1832 Pottsville, PA; and others became more defensive. In Ireland, British bias made it necessary to guard activities from public scrutiny; in America, prejudice from Nativists and abusive employers made similar secrecy necessary. Gradually, the fraternal societies became the same type of secret societies that had protected them in Ireland.
SECRET SOCIETIES EXPORTED
In the 1820s, Ireland’s Ribbon Society absorbed smaller societies in England and Scotland which were formed to protect Catholic rights and promote the independence of Ireland. In The Glories of Ireland (Phoenix Ltd. 1914), edited by Joseph Dunne and P.J. Lenox, it states that: About 1825 the Ribbonmen changed their name to the St. Patrick’s Fraternal Society and branches were established in England and Scotland under the name of the Hibernian Funeral Society. The custom of combining into a larger society for defensive purposes also happened in America. It was reported that in 1836, a ship landed in New York with a courier who delivered a letter authorizing branches of a protective society in America. The original letter has never been found, but the wording has been handed down as follows:
Brothers, Greeting: Be it known that to you and to all whom it may concern that we send to our few brothers in New York full instructions with our authority to establish branches of our society in America. The qualifications for membership must be as follows: All the members must be good Catholics, and Irish or of Irish descent, and of good and moral character, and none of your members shall join any secret societies contrary to the laws of the Catholic Church, and all times and at all places your motto shall be: “Friendship, Unity, and True Christian Charity”.
The letter was dated: This fourth day of May, in the year of our Lord, 1836, and 12 of the signers were from Ulster, Leinster and Connaught and one each from Scotland, and England. It does not identify the organization, nor can the names of those who signed it be located in historical documentation and, while some accounts say it was a reply to a request from the Irish in America, there is no record of the requesting letter either. Mindful of the secrecy involved, it was likely from the Ribbon Society in Ireland to former Ribbon members who had emigrated. The Irish signatories listed are from areas where the original Defenders existed and where major Ribbon organizations operated as the Saint Patrick’s Fraternal Society.
According to The Miner’s Journal newspaper in Schuykill County PA, a contingent of miners from the Hibernian Benevolent Society (HBS) traveled to New York’s St Patrick’s Day parade in 1836. While there, they met with a group of activists from the Saint Patrick’s Fraternal Society (SPFS) – the same name that Ireland’s Ribbonmen had adopted in 1825. The subject of the meeting is not recorded, but since nativist activity was becoming a national threat, it is not difficult to imagine them seeking to consolidate into one major defensive organization as they had done in England. Many in both groups had been members of Ribbon Societies in Ireland before emigrating and they likely agreed that the time had come for an American version of that organization.
THE AOH IS BORN
The members of the HBS returned to Pennsylvania and three months later the letter from Ireland arrived. According to a history of the AOH in PA by Historian, John Garrah, the letter was sent to PA as well as NY and the American organization of SPFS was founded simultaneously in Schuylkill County, PA and near St. James Church – the second oldest Roman Catholic Church in NY city built in 1835 near the Five Points tenements. According to Capt H.B.C. Pollard of the Irish Police in his 1922 book The Secret Societies of Ireland: In 1836, the Executive (SPFS) in Ireland allowed the Society to establish a branch in America. There the organization immediately prospered. In 1838, the SPFS of America changed its name to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), and only gradually did the name AOH come to be adopted by Divisions in Ireland. Even as late as 1904 delegates came to the (Irish) Convention of the Order representing themselves as ‘Defenders’.
Philadelphia Hibernian John O’Dea in his 1914 publication, Famous Irish Societies, recorded: In 1836 a charter was received by members in New York City and in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. The headquarters were for some years in Pennsylvania, but in 1851, a charter was granted to the New York Divisions under the name of The Ancient Order of Hibernians. New York thus became the American headquarters moving it from PA. In 1914, O’Dea was a member of the AOH National Board and certainly knew that the 1851 Charter (as he called it) was a Certificate of Incorporation in NY State under the name AOH; as to the ‘Charter’ received in 1836, he never said it was to the AOH, as later authors assumed, since they were not known by that name at the time. A History of the AOH in PA by Historian, Ed Deenihan, verified: The SPFS came to New York City’s St. James Church, May 4, 1836. The message of the Society was quickly carried to the coal fields where considerable discontent had arisen. One version of AOH history records that the Division formed in PA is credited to a Jeremiah Reilly of Hecksherville, Schuylkill County. However, PA Historian John Garrah has found no records to authenticate that. To further confuse the issue, a plaque, on the wall of St. James church on the NY Street renamed Ancient Order of Hibernians Place, reads: Near this Church of St. James in May, 1836, the first division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians was organized by authority of a charter sent from Ireland by the venerable Board of Erin. The plaque was dedicated on the 100th anniversary of the AOH in 1936 when someone on the committee still believed that the Board of Erin existed before 1836. In an interview with Eugene Markay, CEO of the Co. Cavan Museum who is an expert on bannered societies, he confirmed that there was no AOH in Ireland before the 1850s.
Considering the documentation and research done in more recent time by valid historical authorities, insulated from contradicting opinions, the likely scenario is that former Ribbonmen in America met in NY in March, 1836 and agreed to form branches of that organization in both PA and NY. Permission, requested from the SPFS in Ireland, was granted in 1836. The new SPFS in both NY and PA coexisted until 1838 when they agreed to change their name to the AOH since they had become a totally new organization. As Deenihan also noted: The principles of the Ribbonmen, long dormant, no longer needed to be directed at religious injustice and land reform, their strengths would lay in the concentrated efforts at labor equality. Other issues faced the early Order like opening membership to Irish Americans so that American-born sons of immigrants could join and, of course, a growing loyalty to America. As more societies, with various names, began to join, the need to incorporate in one new name became evident and in 1851, they were incorporated in New York State as the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The early AOH in America remained a defensive, yet secret, society, and while little is known of its specific activities. Membership was well-guarded and restricted to Irish-born. Some minutes books even used member numbers instead of names to protect identities. PA was the national headquarters of the Order until incorporation called for national conventions. The first ones were held in New York, but as the Order grew, other jurisdictions sought the honor, with Boston becoming the site of the first non-NY gathering in 1878.
In 1856, Bishop Joseph Cretin of St. Paul, Minnesota, had written to the New York County AOH of the advantages of life on the western prairie as opposed to the slums of the Five Points. The Civil War halted any westward migration, but after the war, Bishop (later Archbishop) John Ireland continued the appeal by writing in 1874, 5 and 6 to state and national AOH leaders regarding thousands of acres he had purchased from the railroad and offered it to Irish Catholics from the slums of American cities and the westward migration of Irish families began. According to O’Dea’s History of the AOH (1923): hundreds, if not thousands of those families were members of the AOH. The church was often the first building put up and around this the earliest colonists chose their lands. The Irish Catholic population of Iowa and Minnesota doubled as the Irish and the AOH moved westward. In 2008, a young Protestant boy from Minnesota performed the story of Bishop Ireland’s settlement at National History Day and won the AOH Award of a trip to Ireland. He was even later invited to present his performance after Mass on the Altar of the Catholic Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota.
Some members continued to recognize the Irish Ribbon Society as a parent organization and some branches of the Ribbon Society in Ireland even changed their name to AOH in the 1850’s to acknowledge that relationship. Through the years the American AOH maintained close ties with those Irish Ribbon societies which consolidated as the AOH Board of Erin (BOE). In 1887, the American AOH concluded an agreement that the BOE would be recognized as the titular head of the world-wide AOH organization; stipends of $5.00 would be given to any immigrating member with BOE credential and the BOE would periodically generate a password to be used by all. However, by the mid-1800s, the AOH in the U.S., with its motto of Friendship, Unity and Christian Charity, had become a uniquely American Order, yet it always acknowledged that its roots lie in those ancient Irish societies organized to defend Gaelic values and claiming continuity of purpose unbroken back to the earliest defenders of their heritage in 1565. That left many to assume incorrectly that the AOH was formed in Ireland in 1565 while, in truth, though many early fraternal and benevolent societies in America and Ireland, including the Ribbonmen, can claim to have contributed to the birth of today’s AOH, it was actually born in America as any member who has received his Major Degrees can verify!
Know Nothing activities continued to spread across the country. In 1841 and 1844, nativist mobs planned to attack the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral in lower Manhattan and Archbishop ‘Dagger’ John Hughes called on the AOH. A winter, 2007 issue of the New York City Journal noted: When in the spring of 1844, anti-Catholic Nativists threatened to attack and burn Old St. Patrick’s, Hughes surrounded it with armed members of the AOH and warned Mayor James Harper that if harm came to any Catholic or any Catholic church, New York would burn. What the Archbishop actually said was that he would turn New York into another Moscow and, since the ruin of that city in the recent Napoleonic War was fresh in everyone’s mind, there was no misunderstanding his meaning. The AOH was often called on to protect church property and, through their heroic commitment, the attacks were few, but the long, cold and lonely nights of vigil were many. That same year of 1844, the Irish neighborhood of Philadelphia was put to the torch.
In 1854, as stones were contributed from many nations for the construction of the Washington monument, construction was halted when nativists stole and destroyed a granite block donated to the project by Pope Pius IX since they would not tolerate a Catholic stone in that icon to America’s first President. The following year, a nativist attack on an Irish neighborhood in Louisville, KY caused 22 deaths and considerable arson and looting. Although the secrecy surrounding the early AOH makes their reaction to such attacks difficult to define, it is not unlikely that members of earlier protective societies called on their collective past experience and, as part of this new organization, dispensed home-grown justice. As Nativist bigotry spread across America, so too did the AOH. True to their purpose, they provided social welfare benefits to members and stood guard to defend Church property.
As the heroism of the Irish Brigade and other Irish units in the American Civil War had America cheering for the exploits of the sons of Erin in American uniform, the personality of the Irish girls, who had found employment as domestic help, were winning admirers on the home front. The natural result of this new regard was a decrease in, though not elimination of, prejudice against the Irish and the Know Nothing movement, recognized for the bigoted group that it was, faded away. It would emerge again in organizations like the Ku Klux Klan which would also be opposed by the AOH. When the Klan was revived in the 1920s, Hibernian divisions across the country protested its message and its activities were continually opposed and exposed in the pages of the Hibernian Digest. The Klan was even attacked by a local Division at a rally in a Waukesha, Wisconsin hotel in February, 1924. While the AOH has been particularly watchful for Irish defamation, it was sensitive to all ethnic bias. Major opposition also came from the American Unity League which was led by Hibernian Patrick O’Donnell. In 1959, members in Baltimore refused to participate in a local ethnic festival because of discrimination against African Americans. Groups dedicated to ethnic hatred and anti-Catholic propaganda always found an opponent in the AOH.
In 1985, the AOH established the MacBride Principles in memory of the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize winner, 1916 Veteran, IRA Chief of Staff and co-founder of Amnesty International who dedicated his life to the peaceful separation of Ireland from England. The Principles called for the recognition of human rights in Northern Ireland and launched a campaign to force municipalities to withdraw all funds invested in companies in Northern Ireland which did not support Catholic equality in hiring and housing. Many states removed their investments as a result of AOH lobbying.
The relative success of the AOH in America influenced other Ribbon branches to affiliate with them, adopt the name and soon AOH divisions were founded in Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, Canada, Virgin Islands and Australia. The AOH in Scotland, according to the official Scottish registry of organizations, it grew out of the Ribbon Society which was prevalent in Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but only gained its present name in 1838. They were strongest at the turn of the century when, in 1905 they allied with the campaign for Home Rule. Its membership declined through the 20th century. However, divisions still exist in Coatbridge (Division 327), Carfin, Hamilton and Port Glasgow (Division 210) which opened in 1934. There are AOH parades each year around Inverclyde, Port Glasgow and North Lanarkshire.
In the late-1800s, the first Division of the AOH in Canada was formed in the Province of Quebec as Division 1, Hochelaga County. As the AOH spread across Canada, they joined with the American AOH to erect a 45-foot Celtic Cross on the highest point on Grosse Ile on August 15, 1909. This island, in the St. Lawrence River off Quebec, was a quarantine station in 1847 and the Cross stands as a silent sentry over row after row of simple white crosses stretched across an undulating plain, whose dips and hollows are silent reminders of the laborers who spent their days digging mass graves for the near 12,000 victims of Ireland’s Great Hunger who never left the island. Three sides are inscribed in French, English and Gaelic; the English side reads: Sacred to the memory of thousands of Irish who, in order to preserve their faith, suffered famine and exile, and, victims of typhus, ended their sorrowful pilgrimage here, comforted and strengthened by the Canadian Priests. Those who sow in tears reap in joy; the Gaelic inscription reads: Children of the Gael died in their thousands on this island having fled from the laws of the foreign tyrants and an artificial famine in the years 1847-48. God’s loyal blessing upon them. Let this monument be a token to their name and honor from the Gaels of America. God Save Ireland.
The Canadian AOH remains close to the American AOH and the two have worked together on projects related to the purpose of the Order. In 1997, a joint pilgrimage to the Huge Celtic Cross on Grosse Ile was a total success as was a similar expedition on August 15, 2009 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the raising of that largest Celtic Cross in the world. It was here we learned that the many Irish orphans adopted by the generous Quebequois (people of Quebec) were allowed to keep their own Irish names so that they would always remember their heritage. I learned that from the Mayor of Quebec whose maternal great-grandmother is buried on Grosse Ile.
At the National Convention in Denver in 1902, AOH National President Keating acknowledged communication from the Hibernian Australasion Catholic Benefit Society whose 21,000+ members in 10 districts of Australia and New Zealand wished to affiliate with the AOH in America and permit members of each jurisdiction to be: one in name, one in fame – the sea divided Gael! The name change to Ancient Order of Hibernians in Australia was followed in 1903 by an exchange of passwords, Major Degree rituals and proceedings with succeeding National President James E. Dolan of Syracuse, NY.
Another international link with Ireland had been forged earlier when Young Irelander veteran Michael Doheny made his way to New York after the failed 1848 rising. He was joined there by John O’Mahony, another Young Irelander, who had escaped to Paris with James Stephens. O’Mahony and Doheny joined the AOH and formed a semi-military committee within the AOH called The Emmet Monument Association (EMA). The purpose, as its name implied, was to raise money to erect a monument to the Irish patriot, Robert Emmet. However, Emmet declared before his execution that no man should write his epitaph until Ireland was free; those who knew their history knew well the purpose of the Committee was to raise funds to support Irish independence. When it became more militant, O’Mahony separated from the AOH and reformed it as the Fenian Brotherhood in 1858 – a nationwide movement for Irish freedom. Many AOH men continued their support by maintaining membership in both organizations. O’Mahony led the Fenians and, with James Stephens in Ireland, established the Irish counterpart called the Irish Republican Brotherhood. At the same time, the militant Fenian Brotherhood began to infiltrate the AOH and run their people for top AOH offices. In the midst of all these issues the AOH split!
DISCORD IN THE ORDER
As a result of Charles Stewart Parnell’s 1880 tour of the U.S. seeking aid for the Land League in Ireland to help impoverished tenant farmers, an American branch of the League was formed by his sister Frances (Fanny) in Bordentown, NJ. In 1883, Parnell expanded the Land League into the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and a Philadelphia convention of all Irish organizations in America was held to support Parnell’s new party in their fight for an Irish Parliament through Home Rule. The AOH endorsed Home Rule and Alexander Sullivan, a former member of AOH Division 8, Chicago, aspired to Presidency of the American branch of the Land League. He was nominated for President and Andrew Brown, County delegate from St. Louis, seconded the nomination guaranteeing a subscription of $60,000.00 (more than a million today) if Sullivan were elected. Sullivan was elected and when asked where the money would come from, Brown replied, “from the AOH”. Sullivan went to AOH National Delegate (President) Jeremiah Crowley, asking that an assessment be levied on every member to honor the pledge made at the Convention. The assessment was so ordered without consulting the membership.
Some members of the American AOH refused to communicate further with Crowley and appointed Francis Kiernan as National Delegate until the next National Convention in Cleveland on May 16, 1884. At that convention, Crowley appeared and, after a credentials battle, was seated. At the end of a stormy convention, Henry Sheridan of Chicago was elected National Delegate by a slim majority and Crowley was made Chairman of National Directory. Three months later, a notice in the New York Times announced that another National Convention of the Order had been held on August 13 in New York City during which the members of the National Board who were elected in Cleveland were tried and expelled. John Nolan was elected National Delegate. On August 26, the ‘expelled’ Board sent a circular to all Divisions reporting that: a conspiracy has been unearthed in New York which has been in secret operation for 18 months, headed by Hugh Murray of New York County and aided by one Mr Nolan, ex-member of the Irish AOH. They accused the ‘conspirators’ of holding a mock convention, electing officers and seceding from the organization. They also claimed that they had learned that, before the Cleveland Convention had even met, the New Yorkers sent Mr Nolan to the Irish AOH with the promise that he would affirm allegiance of the American AOH to the Board of Erin if they would support him for National Delegate and name them the legal AOH. The circular reported that the Irish order agreed and, by that agreement, had conspired with the `New York traitors‘ and thereby demonstrated that they were “unfit to preside at the head of an organization of the magnitude of ours. The Cleveland Board therefore announced that they had severed all links with the group that they had once looked to as a faithful friend and father adding for good measure, that they were a drain on the Order in America, intellectually a disgrace, and had sacrificed the whole organization for a few New York favorites. It was signed by the Cleveland National Board including Henry Sheridan and Jeremiah Crowley. Lawsuits followed over property and the right to use the name ‘Ancient Order of Hibernians’. There were now two organizations in America: the New Yorkers took the name of the AOH, Board of Erin (BOE) and the other: the AOH in America.
Then in 1889, Parnell was named co-respondent in a divorce between Capt. O’Shea and his wife Katherine. Ireland’s Catholic Bishops and Cardinal Manning condemned Parnell and split the IPP. Though Parnell died in 1891, the religious posture of the BOE dictated their decision to follow the Church and condemn Parnell for his affair and ostracize his supporters. That condemnation was reflected in the merchandise (password) issued by the BOE in 1891 and the American AOH, who supported Parnell’s struggle for an independent Irish Parliament vehemently objected. At the New Orleans convention in 1892, Delegate Wilhere denounced: the merchandise from the BOE containing the unhappy references to the late Mr. Parnell, who was for many years the honored and well beloved leader of the Irish people. He stated that true Hibernians of America were opposed to any mention of factions in Irish politics. He added that many Divisions across the country strongly opposed the password as well and declared in favor of breaking relations with the BOE for introducing politics into the Order. And it was done!
Another recommendation at that convention was a 5-cent per member assessment to make up for the misappropriation of funds by the former National Treasurer, Patrick Hynes.
In 1894, the Omaha Convention of the Order was the first to see the American Order on an independent footing. They had officially broken with the Board of Erin and become the autonomous American organization that they had, in fact, been for years. But this time it was made official; they had even changed the title of the head officer from Delegate to President since he would no longer be a delegate to an international AOH convention. Some of the Irish BOE members continued to correspond with the BOE in America, while others recognized only the AOH in America. Back in 1886, National Delegate Nolan of the American BOE had traveled to the BOE Convention in Ireland to stop them from communicating with the AOH in America. He charged that some of the BOE had continued supporting the American faction and the animosity which split the American Order was exported to Ireland and they too split with expulsions and law suits resulting.
It would be several years before saner heads prevailed and the two factions in America were brought to true brotherhood through the intervention of Antrim-born Bishop James McFaul of Trenton, NJ. At the 1898 AOH national convention in Trenton, Bishop McFaul arbitrated an alliance between the opposing factions of the AOH and chartered a merger. The American Branch, represented by President, P.J. O’Connor of Savannah, GA and the Board of Erin Branch, represented by National Delegate, Rev. E.S. Phillips of the diocese of Scranton agreed and the Board of Erin Branch was absorbed into the American Branch in July.
Tensions remained high between the AOH in American and the Board of Erin. The appearance of more militant nationalism never swayed the AOH BOE from their political conviction for an Irish parliament still subservient to the Crowns and they were criticized for not being outspoken disciples of the revolutionary action proposed by the heroes of Easter Week. They also followed the Catholic hierarchy in condemning the actions of James Connolly during the Great Dublin Lockout. This again strained relations with the American AOH who supported both the militants and the workers. A number of AOH members in Ireland, who also supported Connolly and the militants, broke with the AOH BOE and re-established links with the American Order as the AOH American Alliance. They took an idea from the American AOH and formed a militant group called The Hibernian Rifles which took part in the Easter Rising.
THROUGH THE YEARS
Another major decision of the 1894 Omaha convention was the establishment of a Ladies Auxiliary, Ancient Order of Hibernians (LAAOH). Irish women always stood side by side with Irish men when it came to the welfare of their people. It’s no surprise then that the early AOH was admirably supported by local groups of Irish women. At the 1894 convention, a group of them applied for affiliation. The request was happily welcomed and unanimously approved. What had been long recognized among the Irish as an accepted quality of Irish women was now broadcast to the rest of America where women were considered subservient. The message was: when you count the Irish, count our women too! In the following year and the next few years, several Divisions were formed in Minnesota which was where the thousands of Hibernians had relocated by 1876 at Bishop John Ireland’s invitation. They too began to spread across the country. A group called The Daughters of Erin affiliated with the LAAOH some years later at the 1906 National Convention in Saratoga, NY. The LAAOH, it was agreed, would elect their own National Board, function as a separate body subject only to the AOH National President and Chaplain and hold their own conventions which were usually done in conjunction with the men. By their 1906 convention, Ladies delegates came from 33 states and Quebec and were able to report a membership of 56,000!
In 1985, the AOH National President approved and signed a new Ladies constitution which dropped the word ‘Auxiliary’ from their name and made them equal partners in name as they had been in deed for the previous 90 years. The new LAOH now had greater jurisdiction over its own affairs. The first action of the new LAOH was to celebrate the 150th anniversary of their brother Hibernians in 1986 with a Mass of Thanksgiving at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, followed by a reception at Catholic University and an exhibit of AOH memorabilia. This tribute to their brothers was an anniversary gift in recognition of the 92 years shared with the AOH and the years to come.
The two worked well together protecting their heritage. As newspapers and magazines featured articles degrading the Irish and cartoons portraying them with monkey-like features; they took action. A NY Times article dated May 7, 1902 was entitled, War on the Irish Comedian and it read: AOH starts a crusade against publications which cartoon Irishmen. It reported that, John T. Keating, National President of the Irish organization, brought the news to Chicago when he came back from the East today (that a) crusade will be directed against newspapers and other publications which cartoon the Irish. Some vaudeville entertainers thought they had found a ready subject in the Irish arrivals and lampooned them on stage. Popular with nativists, they portrayed the stage Irish as so captivated by booze that no one could take them seriously. Among those chased off the burlesque boards were the Russell Brothers who portrayed Irish maids as bumbling nitwits always into the master’s liquor cabinet after which they would dance a jig and offer nonsensical dialogue and antics demeaning to the Irish. Soon, every show of the brothers was disrupted by flying eggs and vegetables. Similar audience reaction followed any entertainer who thought to ridicule the Irish by exaggerating a stage-Irish image. The anti-defamation campaign started by the AOH was soon picked up by other Irish groups and continued for many years. As late as 25-years later the NY Times noted on Oct 5, 1927 that, the American Irish Vigilance Committee was filing charges against MGM for producing several films which the committee considered degrading and/or offensive to the Irish. Picket lines outside theaters also notified producers and directors to alter their presentations and characterize the Irish in a more positive manner. According to AOH Historian, John Ridge: the AOH began publicizing the Irish background of such silver screen idols as the Barrymores, James Cagney, Gene Kelly, Spencer Tracy, Maureen O’Hara, Donald O’Connor, Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields who not only fought in the Easter Rising of 1916, but was interned with Michael Collins in Frongoch; likewise, George Brent who fled Ireland as an IRA soldier. Even Pat O’Brien revealed in his autobiography how an AOH scholarship helped him finish school.
Hibernians have been unceasingly vigilant regarding the defamation of the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. T-shirts, hats and especially tasteless St. Patrick’s Day cards have ridiculed the Irish as no other ethnic group ever was. National President Nick Murphy even bought stock in Hallmark cards so that he could legitimately attend their stockholders meeting and publicly denounce their treatment of our national holiday before their board of Directors. He secured a promise that the practice would cease. Other members have been known to collect insulting cards from an offending store’s display and hide them in a secure spot in the store where they wouldn’t be found until after March 17. One enterprising Irishman even bought all the offensive T-shirts before St. Patrick’s Day and returned them at the end of March and got his money back! Gradually, some retailers got the message.
The Charity of the Irish, even in the worst of times, is extraordinary. They came to America escaping the Great Hunger with little but the clothes on their backs and a dream. With opportunity denied and prejudice rampant, they soon found themselves in the slums of America’s cities. Yet according to Tyler Anbinder’s The Five Points, an observer of that notorious slum in lower Manhattan commented: The kindness of these poor people to each other is frequently astonishing and must be witnessed to be appreciated. When the AOH was founded not far from the Five Points, concern for their fellow Irish was a key ingredient in the organization’s makeup. It was manifested in monetary amounts allocated for sick members and funeral benefits. It was not long after, that the AOH began to show concern for their neighbors across the land by endowing other established charities as their fortunes in America began to improve. By the turn of the century, a 20-year assessment revealed that $11,803,302.00 had been recorded as donated to various charities and institutions. There is no telling how much was donated, but not recorded. In today’s money that $11 million would be more than $287 million.
Disaster relief has always been an integral part of the Charity of the AOH. Thousands of dollars had been raised to relieve the distress caused by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Charleston Earthquake of 1886 and the Johnstown Flood of 1889. When a devastating storm in December, 1900 killed 8,000 people in Galveston, Texas and left thousands homeless, the AOH was among the first to assist. A letter from the Dallas County President sent to the AOH read in part: Hardly had the storm spent the mad fury of its force when your grand old order came with ample assistance to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and relieve the distress of the homeless. Relief continued in the Kansas City Flood of 1903, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and other major disasters that devastated life and property up to the present day. A successful fund was even established to assist the families of the 2009 floods that devastated several counties in Ireland. A special fund, created to relieve distress caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, donated $100,000.00 to that stricken city and, in order to boost their injured tourist economy, the Order brought their National Convention in 2008 to a hotel that stood on the previously flooded Canal street.
In 1999 an idea was born in Philadelphia which grew into a national enterprise. Called the Hibernian Hunger Project, it provided food for the hungry in memory of those Irish who had suffered starvation during the Great Hunger. Inspired by the 150th anniversary of that tragedy, it quickly became a State, then a National project in 2002. Since its inception, the Hibernian Hunger Project has provided hundreds of thousands of meals and many thousands of pounds of food annually to food pantries and homeless shelters. In 2005, the project became a part of a 501c3 tax deductible Hibernian Charity Trust to include several charitable activities including Project St. Patrick and educational programs like National History Day and scholarships.
Individual Divisions support charities in their own area like the Souper Bowl run by a mid-west Division in which local restaurants are invited to offer their best soup for tasting and tables are set up in a local park with Irish entertainers performing. Admission includes all the soup one can eat with an afternoon of Irish music. A California Division hosts a Christmas party for the children of local prison inmates who would otherwise have no Christmas. The Hibernian Riders, a group of motorcyclists from a Long Island Division, host a Poker Run for Hunger in which local biking enthusiasts enroll to travel to six designated businesses that pay to be included. The bikers retrieve a playing card at each location and return to the Hibernian Culture Center to draw a seventh card and determine the winning poker hand. Food, beverages and entertainment are provided at the Center, covered by a local radio station as prizes and raffles raise yet more for charity.
Reminiscent of the assistance provided as sick and burial benefits by the early AOH, a nation-wide fund drive was established to assist the families of members who were lost in the dastardly attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. A memorial panel was created for the Irish-American Heritage Museum display of the History of the AOH with the names of all Hibernian family members who were lost.
SUPPORT OF THE CHURCH
AOH support for the Church and its missions was remarkable. At the 1910 Convention, Archbishop Christie of Portland asked the AOH to pass a .25 cent per member assessment in an attempt to reach a goal of a $25,000.00 for mission work within the U.S. The request was honored and at the next convention it was reported that the goal had not only been met, but had been exceeded by $3,000.00 and the LAAOH added another $10,000.00 for good measure.
In addition to earlier support of the Church, the activities of the Order became centered on the fight for Irish freedom after 1916, but when America entered WWI in 1917, many ladies divisions raised funds for American War Relief with events like the play entitled A Wild Irish Rose sponsored by the Ladies in June, 1918. They also contributed more than $11,000 to a Mass Outfit Fund for Catholic Army and Navy Chaplains. After the war, the ladies again focused on the Church. In 1924, with some help from the men of the AOH, the Ladies erected a huge memorial to the Nuns of the Battlefield, many of whom were Irish and served in the American Civil War. The monument was erected in the Nation’s Capital and each year is the site of a wreath-laying ceremony after a Memorial Mass at historic St, Matthew’s Church across the street from the monument. In 1927, a check for $10,000.00 was given to Catholic U ($139,300 today). The Ladies also requested donations of gold and jeweled family heirlooms to incorporate into gifts in memory of relatives who owned them. In 1928, a 14k gold Chalice and Paten was presented to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Chalice was a replica of the 1639 Kilmallock Chalice at the Dominican Friary in Limerick and was inlaid with jewels. In 1929, an illuminated missal, encased in a tooled leather cover encrusted with jewels was presented to St. Brigid’s altar at the National Shrine. The ladies also presented a bejeweled crucifix reflecting the design of the twelfth century Cross of Cong. The most meaningful gift however, was a hand-carved missal stand made from the wooden pews of St. Francis Xavier Church in Gettysburg. The pews had been used as cots for the wounded civil war soldiers tended by the Nuns of the Battlefield. There are dark stains in the wood from the blood of the wounded soldiers treated thereon; it was decided not to purge those historically significant stains. Candlesticks of gold with Celtic designs were also presented in the following years. The AOH and LAAOH donated $1000.00 each in May, 1979, to Catholic University for a specially designed wooden display case for the original vestments of John Carroll, the first Bishop (1790) and Archbishop (1808) of Maryland.
In 1935, Father (later Bishop) Edward Galvin pleaded with the Ladies Auxiliary to assist his small group of Columban missionaries in China. The ladies voted to make the Columban Missions their primary charity and in the first 50 years of that association donated half a million dollars to that cause. They are now working on the second million. As the AOH and LAAOH moved across the country with the Irish, their church went with them. Their support for their church is attested to by the number of buildings and gifts, especially the beautiful stained glass windows that were donated by AOH and LAAOH Divisions to new Churches in towns small and large in spite of the fact that Irish communities were notoriously hard-pressed for their own economic survival. A national survey of Hibernian patronage by AOH and LAAOH Divisions has produced a partial count of more than 500 stained glass windows and artifacts.
In 1981, the Brooklyn AOH started a three-day Great Irish Fair at Coney Island, NY to raise money for Catholic Charities. It ran for many years featuring the best in Irish and Irish American entertainment with countless Irish product, food and beverage vendors. Awards were provided to noteworthy individuals from the community and it was featured in many media bringing attention to the good work of the Order. After expenses, an average of $100,000.00 a year was donated to Catholic Charities by the AOH. In 1986, St. James Church, where NY Governor and Presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith served as an altar boy and where an early Division of the AOH had been founded, was designated to be torn down after city officials declared the roof in danger of collapsing. An appeal went out to the AOH because of its historic significance and fund raising commenced. As a result, the church was saved by the efforts of the local community and the AOH from Manhattan and Staten Island who financed the restoration. AOH monetary assistance also helped save the once-condemned St. Brigid’s Church in Manhattan from the wrecker’s ball. And support for their Church continues.
Members of the AOH in America may not have fought side by side with early Irish societies who stood to defend their faith and heritage as their ancestors did, but they accepted the responsibility that was passed on to them to keep those traditions alive and maintain the fight. In America, they were not only free to attend Mass, but also to defend their church and clergy against any who would interfere with that celebration. And defend it they did as at Old Saint Patrick’s in 1841 and 1844. However, on December 10, 1989, a militant Gay and Lesbian group called ACT UP planned an attack on New York’s new St. Patrick’s Cathedral during Mass to protest Cardinal John O’Connor’s stand against abortion and the free distribution of condoms in public schools. The Cardinal called on the AOH and the K of C to crowd the church and allow no room for the demonstrators to fit in. Further, if any did enter, he asked for them to be peacefully forced out, cautioning that he wanted no violence in the house of God. When the day arrived, the church was packed! During Mass, at the distribution of Communion, several aggressors slowly made their way up the main aisle undetected and upon receiving the Host, spat it out and trampled it while others sling-shot condoms at the priests on the altar. True to the Cardinal’s wishes, they were quietly, but hurriedly, pushed out the side doors. Once outside, several of them fell down the Cathedral steps and had to be taken away by ambulance, but that was attributed to the fact that they were unfamiliar with the proper way of entering and exiting a church.
On June 7, 2009, New York’s old St. Patrick’s celebrated its 200th anniversary with a Mass and parade. At Mass, Archbishop Timothy Dolan recalled the AOH’s defensive stand and announced that, due to the church’s historic significance, the Vatican elevated old St. Patrick’s to a Basilica. After Mass, a huge parade of local organizations passed in review led by New York’s Fighting 69th at the head of AOH National, State, County and Division officers. As the Hibernians reached the front of the church, the parade paused and the AOH men stepped out of line to form a cordon around the front of the Cathedral in remembrance of the historic 1841 and 1844 defenses. The parade then continued as the Hibernians proudly stood in silent remembrance of past defenders while the passing organizations saluted them.
Just as the AOH helped build the Catholic Church across America, it continues to nurture and support its growth with various enterprises such as Project Saint Patrick which provides unconditional vocational grants to seminarians and religious novices in need of assistance on their journey to ordination. Started in 1995, by past national president Ed Wallace and Father James Burns of the Minnesota AOH, it raises funds through donations and the sale of Memory Cards. By 2012, the project had provided in excess of $300,000.00 to more than 750 men and women applicants of all ethnic denominations on their way to becoming priests, monks, brothers and nuns.
In yet another significant remembrance that brings the Order back to its roots, AOH Division 2 in Green County, NY, received the donation of a huge flat rock from the Kingston AOH which the Kingston members had secured from a nearby quarry. The stone was transported to a secluded spot on the grounds of the Irish Heritage Center at East Durham in the Catskill Mountains in 2010. The rock is the focal point of an annual commemorative Mass, celebrated in memory of those who courageously kept the faith alive during the dark days of persecution at hidden Mass Rocks in the woods, glens and mountain passes of Ireland.
THE AOH AND EDUCATION
Animosity toward Irish Catholics throughout the British Empire resulted in the accomplishments and contributions of the Irish being disguised or excluded from the English educational system. When America expelled the Crown in 1781, they abolished the British system of government, their laws and their monetary system, but not their system of education. America’s first teachers had been schooled by British educators and used English texts. Down through the ages, the omissions from those texts were never replaced with the result that the contributions of the Irish were never a part of America’s education. Since its early existence, the AOH promoted awareness of Ireland’s part, not only in world history, but specifically in America’s history. They sponsored classes on Irish history, published it in their National Digest and Division newsletters and promoted it at festivals, fairs and competitions in Irish arts in an attempt to make Americans aware of the many contributions of the Irish to World civilization in general and to America in particular.
When the AOH found America’s school system lacking with regard to the treatment of Irish history, they established the office of National Historian in 1908. Through this office, the AOH funded the publication of books, scholarship programs and essay competitions to encourage youngsters to learn of Irish contributions to the worlds of literature, science and the building and defense of the United States. This prompted Massachusetts Governor Curtis Guild to compliment the AOH in 1908, saying that: their generous labors in the reopening of Gaelic literature are of value, not only to the Irish, but to the world. Several authors who published books on Irish subjects dedicated their works to the AOH in recognition of Hibernian support. New York’s Archbishop ‘Dagger’ John Hughes was responsible for creating a Catholic School System in America during the 1840s. The AOH whole-heartedly supported his efforts from the start and Archbishop Hughes, in turn, wholeheartedly supported the AOH’s dedication to education. The promotion of education became an integral part of the Order with special focus on Irish history. Among the many notable donations was an 1896 endowment of $50,000.00 for a Chair of Celtic Languages and Literature at the Catholic University in Washington, DC and a 1928 endowment of $50,000.00 by the National Convention at Buffalo, NY to the Irish College in Rome. At the 1978 National Convention of the AOH and LAAOH in Killarney, Ireland, the men and women jointly voted to establish a Hibernian Fund at the University of Notre Dame to provide scholarships. Today, children and grandchildren of members receive scholarship assistance from more than $300,000.00 raised by the Notre Dame Hibernian Fund. They also voted to aid Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for American Catholicism.
Today, it remains a constitutional requirement that a Historian be the first appointed officer at each level of the Order and that a reading of Irish History be delivered at each meeting. The Hibernian Digest also includes a story from Irish History in each issue as do the National AOH website and many State and individual Division web-sites. Many Divisions also sponsor scholarship programs in local schools and the selection process usually depends on an essay written on some phase of Irish history or culture. Classes in the Irish language are also sponsored by numerous Divisions, a column in the Irish language is a part of the National Hibernian Digest and the AOH National Board even supports Scoil na Fuiscoige, an Irish language school in West Belfast, to which the National Board donated $5,000.00 in 2009 to allow the purchase of an electronic computer whiteboard for classroom use.
In 1990 the AOH/LAOH Irish Way Scholarship was formed to annually award two $500.00 scholarships to the child or grandchild of a member. These applications are judged by the Irish American Cultural Institute based in New Jersey. The National Board also established two annual $1000.00 Junior Year Abroad Scholarships for the son or daughter of an AOH member who is attending an accredited college/university in the U.S. and has been accepted at an accredited college/university in Ireland that is recognized by his or her school.
The National Historian’s office has sponsored the Irish Award at the National History Day (NHD) Finals at the University of Maryland since 1990. Students from across the nation and on American bases around the world, in grades 6 to 12, compete at local, regional and state levels for the chance to advance to the National Finals with an essay, project, video, slide presentation, performance or website of their own creation on a subject relating to a chosen theme. The National Historian’s office, with assistance from local Divisions, judge the Irish entries and award a round trip for two to Ireland where the student(s) are officially welcomed by a member of the Irish government. In 2008, the LAOH joined with the AOH in their sponsorship of an NHD award of $1,500.00 scholarship assistance. The LAOH National Historian or delegate also attends the four-day finals at the University of Maryland to assist in judging and selecting the winners of both awards. In 2009, the Irish Ambassador to the United States, Michael Collins, joined the National Historians on stage to present the Awards and praise the educational activities of the Order and in 2017 the Irish Deputy Chief of Mission, Michael Lonergan attended to present the awards and also complimented the AOH on their attention to heritage.
From 1990 to 2009, the office of the National Historian had also attended the annual National Conference of the Social Studies (NCSS) which is attended by thousands of middle school teachers from across the nation. Since American school books are deficient with regard to the contributions of the Irish, the Historian’s office managed a booth with displays, flyers, CDs, DVDs, books and other educational material to distribute to teachers as supplemental classroom material. It quickly became Irish Information Central for many educators. Local AOH Divisions also provided support and assisted in promoting the heritage of Ireland to the teachers. One of the remarkable benefits of attendance at NCSS was that information provided to teachers was often seen in projects submitted by students at NHD, both Irish and non-Irish, completing the circle of education. The project was terminated in 2010 as a result of increasing costs and a diminishing supply of accredited material from publishers and the focus was turned to providing an increased awareness of Ireland’s Great Hunger which was one of the great voids in American education
The AOH supported legislation to add the true story of that tragedy to the American school curriculum in many states and assisted in developing many of them. When some were shelved as too extensive by overburdened educators, the AOH Historian’s office created a one-hour, four-part DVD entitled The Reasons for Learning, complete with related Data Based Questions and exercizes. The DVD was purchased by many Divisions, duplicated and freely distributed to the schools in their areas. It was also placed on the AOH Website and made available for free download by anyone who wished to copy it. It was ultimately praised by many teachers as an effective and informative tool.
To satisfy a demand for material to share at meetings during the constitutionally required reading from Irish History, the office of National Historian published a collection of booklets with short readings on a variety of topics relating to Irish and Irish-American history and made them available to Divisions and members at only the cost of printing. Copies of these publications were also part of the American AOH memorabilia donated to the National Museum in Ireland along with other publications and artifacts such as ribbons and charters.
As news regarding current events in Ireland had become more misrepresented in the media, the AOH added another Chair to its educational activities. This was to enlighten elected officials on the situation in Ireland and inform members and the public on positions taken by their elected leaders on issues of concern. Thus in 1988 was born the Political Education Committee (PEC). The PEC became a Chair of major influence and importance in the ensuing years and kept politicians and members aware of the events leading up to, and culminating in, the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998 which finally brought peace to the troubled streets of Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the only political group in Northern Ireland to oppose the Good Friday Agreement confirming the importance of AOH support for that important issue. With the idea that today’s events are tomorrow’s history, support was also given to Cuimhneamh, a history project in South Armagh documenting the impact of the troubles on that community for future researchers.
From its inception, the AOH and LAOH have recognized the above-average efforts of its members. Individual Divisions present Hibernian of the Year certificates and award Life Membership to deserving members while State Boards validate Life Membership and confer Plaques, Trophies and/or Irish Crystal memorabilia for above average dedication with such as New York’s Burns-Hayes Waterford Crystal Award, The National Board also validates Life Membership recommended by States as well as providing the J.F. Kennedy Medal biennially since 1966 to one outstanding member. In addition, the McBride Award has been awarded on alternate years since 1985 to any individual who has made a significant contribution to Ireland’s culture and/or welfare.
In return, the AOH has been cited for its patriotic and benevolent activities as the foremost fraternal organization in the world. That recognition has come from leaders and organizations both national and international. Land League founder Michael Davitt called the AOH, the most powerful pro-Celtic organization in the world. Charles Stewart Parnell, known as the Uncrowned King of Ireland, wrote, It would be impossible for me to speak too highly of the patriotism and devotion toward Ireland which has been so constantly manifested by your Order. In 1900, an Exposition Universelle was held in Paris to celebrate the achievements of the past century. It was a gigantic international World Fair with 76,000 exhibits from nations around the world and attended by 57 million people. At the Expo, the AOH was awarded a solid gold Medal of Honor as the most significant organization of its kind in the world. In presenting the award the committee noted: This award has been made because of the perfect working of your organization, its patriotism, its excellent method of providing for sick and destitute members, its humane efforts in behalf of those not affiliated with it, its credible recognition and the assistance rendered to all public and private education.
Irish Leaders have also long recognized the value of the AOH. In 1958, Irish President Eamon DeValera wrote, Once again I wish the Hibernians a joyous St. Patrick’s Day. May we soon see realized the fervent hopes of our national unity with independence regained. Irish Prime Minister John Lynch echoed those sentiments in 1972 when he said, The AOH from its foundation has done much to give meaning to friendship between our two countries. On a trip to Ireland in 1998, AOH and LAOH National Officers were hosted by President Mary McAleese at Aras an Uachtarain (Irish White House). She called the AOH the leading members of the Irish Diaspora. Ambassador Michael Collins noted at the 2010 National Convention: With you at our side, we know that Ireland and its people will continue to flourish at home and abroad.
Greeting and salutations have also come from many Presidents of the United States; in 1927, Calvin Coolidge recognized: Your Order is pledged to the loyal support of our government; In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote: The year 1836 seems far away to us and yet the Irish began their migration to America long before that. They made their special contributions to the building of this country in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods and from the beginning of our life as a nation down to this centennial year of the AOH; In 1946, President Truman recognized the AOH by becoming the first President to attend an AOH banquet; and in 1970, President Nixon said: I share that pride in that special quality that has earned you such a prominent place in the history and achievement of our great country. A memorable example of recognition by America’s leaders also came when Dwight D. Eisenhower hosted a delegation of AOH National Officers in the White House Rose Garden. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was even a member of the Order and in 1961 reviewed the NY St. Patrick’s Day Parade. In tribute to all Irish Americans, the US Congress, by Public Law 101-418, designated March 1991 as Irish-American Heritage Month; it has been so declared every year since.
Patriotism to America was manifested in AOH recognition of Irish contributors to America, even before its existence, such as Patrick Carr, shot in the Boston Massacre; the 22 Irishmen who died at Lexington and Concord; Washington’s spy-master, Hercules Mulligan and many others. Support was given by monuments from Timothy Murphy who turned the tide at the Battle of Saratoga to Commodore John Barry, first flag officer of the US Navy. They also supported the erection of a Celtic Cross over the grave of Colonel William Thompson, first officer of the new US Army who led Pennsylvania’s Line of Ireland in the American Revolution. The AOH sponsored research and writings on the Irish involvement in American historic milestones from the American Revolution to the War of 1812 and the defense of the Alamo. But they were especially diligent in promoting activities that Hibernians were involved in like the number of our members in the ranks of the Fighting 69th Regiment of New York. When the AOH was less than 25 years old, the American Civil War erupted and many members went to fight for the part of America that they had adopted – both north and south. In some cases, entire Hibernian Divisions went off to war and sadly were often in the companies or regiments that faced each other on the battlefield. The legendary Irish Brigade had many Hibernians, not only from New York, but from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts as well. In remembering their fallen brothers, the AOH has helped to erect memorials at most major battlefields of that war, including the last one allowed at Antietam. It stands at the end of Bloody Lane and memorializes not only the Irish Brigade, but their commanding general, whose likeness adorns the memorial. Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher, who led the Irish Brigade, was a member of the AOH and is also honored in a 2009 memorial erected by the Montana AOH at Fort Benton, where Meagher met his untimely death while serving his adopted country as acting Governor of the Montana Territory.
Another particular Hibernian hero was Donegal-born Medal of Honor recipient Michael Dougherty who enlisted in the Union army at the early age of 16. He was captured and spent 23 months in Southern prisons. After his release, he was homeward bound on the steamship Sultana when the ship’s boiler exploded. Of 2000 passengers, he was one of only 900 to survive. Finally, after 4 years of trauma, the weary 21- year-old Union Veteran reached his hometown of Bristol, PA. where he started a new Division of the AOH and where a memorial statue was erected to his memory.
When General Sherman threatened to burn Atlanta to the ground in his march through Georgia, he was confronted by Cavan-born Father Thomas O’Reilly. The courageous priest told Sherman that if the churches of Atlanta weren’t spared, he would instigate a mutiny by the Irish Catholic soldiers in Sherman’s command and back them up with a local division of the Hibernian Rifles. At first Sherman wanted to have Fr. Tom shot, but reconsidered. He reluctantly spared all five churches and the City Hall, with all its records, which happened to be in the center of the church district. A memorial to Fr. Reilly as the savior of Atlanta is the focus of an AOH wreath-laying ceremony in Atlanta every St. Patrick’s Day. In a small room below Atlanta’s Church of The Immaculate Conception are museum-style glass cases with artifacts of the Church’s history. In one of those cases, beside a portrait of Father O’Reilly, lies his membership ribbon from Atlanta AOH Division 1.
Once given, Irish loyalty is steadfast. The Irish who had given that loyalty to the southern cause in the American Civil War contributed greatly to their adopted states. The AOH-funded memorial to Lt. Dick Dowling is evidence of that. Dowling, with 44 mostly Irish men held off a Union Navy flotilla of 5,000 men attempting to invade Texas and captured 350 of them. His monument in Houston’s Herrman Park has been the focus of a wreath laying ceremony each year by the AOH on St. Patrick’s Day. It is only one of the many such memorials so honored.
AOH Loyalty reached a pinnacle at the Freedom Foundation’s Park at Valley Forge, PA, where 7-foot, 7-inch high fiber-glass replicas of the Washington Monument were erected in one-acre Medal of Honor Groves for each state, Puerto Rico and Washington DC with medal recipients from that jurisdiction engraved thereon. It was learned that 150 men from 14 countries were not listed anywhere since their records were lost or they were signed up right off the boat and never established residence. Not surprisingly, most were of Irish birth. After several organizations were unsuccessfully solicited for support, the AOH volunteered to erect an obelisk not only to the forgotten Irish, but all the previously forgotten heroes not listed elsewhere. A nation-wide fund-raising campaign ensued and on August 24, 1985, the AOH Tara Pipe Band of Massapequa, NY led a parade of dignitaries into a new one-acre grove at the park entrance. The US Marine color guard posted the Irish and American colors as the US Navy Band played the anthems of both nations and a seven-foot obelisk of Wicklow Granite, donated by Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey and shipped and erected by the AOH, was unveiled before a tearful assembly in what will always be known as the Irish Grove. The ladies also joined in paying tribute to the 150 unheralded Medal of Honor recipients for to view the memorial comfortably, one may rest on the concrete benches on either side provided by the LAAOH.
Through all America’s wars and troubled times, the AOH was always in the front lines of America’s defense from those in the military to the Hibernian men and women on the home front who bought and sold the war bonds to those who worked in the factories building the machines to support the fighting men. There were also men like Andrew Jackson Higgins who designed and built the landing craft known as the Higgins Boat. General Eisenhower noted that, Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us. … If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.
One of the most emotional symbols of America’s history is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery which contains the remains of American soldiers from WWI, WWII and Korea. Each was awarded the Medal of Honor which are on display inside the Memorial Amphitheater at the rear of the Tomb. Also on display in that amphitheater is a large wooden shamrock on which a plaque reads: A TRIBUTE TO THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER by the ANCIENT ORDER OF HIBERNIANS IN AMERICA. In 2010, the AOH again demonstrated its loyalty when the Medal of Honor Groves at the Freedom’s Foundation were found to have suffered 25 years of neglect due to budget restraints and was left in disgraceful condition according to local officials. The AOH again offered its time and resources to restore not just its own Irish Grove, but the entire park to its pristine condition. A commitment was made and a nationwide effort for fund-raising and labor ensued. The amount of work necessary was considerable and AOH past National President, Seamus Boyle, committed that the entire park will be maintained in perpetuity to insure that the memorials to America’s Medal of Honor recipients will never again fall into disrepair.
Loyalty to Ireland is one of the strongest attributes of the AOH and has been manifested in strengthening ties between their two nations. It is seen in such programs as support for the joint issue of postage stamps honoring prominent Irish Americans like inventor John Holland, tenor John McCormack, and White House architect James Hoban. It has been conveyed in the donation of Irish books to American libraries and American books to Irish libraries like those made to Ireland’s National Library on the Irish experience in America. Loyalty to both nations was never more evident than in the establishment of a Buy Irish committee at all levels of the Order
It was also seen in the support and management of a short-lived fleet of trans-Atlantic steamships called the U.S. Irish Line which encouraged tourism for the mutual benefit of both countries. As one AOH advertisements noted: Ireland will turn toward America for her needs in farming implements, agricultural and mining machinery and a thousand other necessities of American manufacture; in turn, Ireland will send to America vast amounts of raw materials, finished articles from her mills and thousands of tons of dairy and farming products.
In 1985, NY State President Ray Meehan read that Irish Patriot Tom Clarke had moved to Suffolk County before returning to Ireland to organize the Easter Rising. Ray assigned State Historian, Mike McCormack, to find the home-site for the purpose of erecting a memorial. With a committee consisting of Mike McKenna, Bob and Carol Mahon, they found it in Manorville. A national fund-raiser was organized and in 1987 an obelisk of Wicklow Granite carved in Ireland was erected. It has been the site of an annual memorial ceremony on Low Sunday every year since. In 1996 the name of Kathleen Daly Clarke was added to the monument by the Ladies AOH as the Historian’s office shared her biography with them outlining her significant Republican activities. As recent as June, 2018, the AOH in County Tyrone honored New York State and Suffolk County AOH for establishing and preserving the memorial to the Clarkes at their former Manorville home-site. The honors were bestowed at a special ceremony in Thomas Clarke’s hometown of Dungannon by Tyrone AOH County President Gerry McGeough who presented plaques to NY State Secretary John Manning and FFAI Chairman Martin Galvin representing AOH NY State President Victor Vogel. President McGeough said: We learned of the beautiful memorial that New York State AOH and Suffolk County have erected at his American home-site. We wanted to give special recognition to you and are grateful to your State President Victor Vogel and to you for coming and accepting these awards.
In 1989, the National Historian’s office ran a nation-wide campaign to fund a proper display at the Paterson Museum for the Fenian Ram which was the prototype for the USS Holland – America’s first working military submarine and forerunner of the greatest submarine fleet in the world – named for its inventor, John Philip Holland of Liscannor, County Clare. Holland’s first boat, the Holland I and the Fenian Ram which had been built for the Fenian Brotherhood to sink the British Navy, had been tested in the waters off Paterson, New Jersey and were in the possession of the Paterson Museum. Displayed in a public park, the Ram had been painted yellow after a Beatles tune and was removed to a shed behind the museum to protect it from vandals. The successful AOH campaign led to a donation which resulted in an exhibit of the Fenian Ram and Holland’s first sub, as well as Holland’s papers and other Holland memorabilia.
The dream of freedom and independence for Ireland, which has been the root of all the trouble in Ireland since the 16th century, never diminished in the hearts of those who founded the AOH in America nor, indeed, in the hearts of today’s members. Even the National Constitution demands attention to that principle. However, it also mandates that all attempts toward that goal be constitutional and lawful. While it prohibits support of individual politicians or political parties, it allows lobbying in support of Irish, American or religious causes. That is not to say that some members cannot share membership in other organizations more actively involved in supporting activities in Ireland, but in the halls of the AOH, all support must be apolitical and lawful and the AOH name can never be used to endorse a political candidate!.
When the British built an artificial border to imprison six of Ulster’s nine counties under Crown control, the AOH created the Anti Partition Committee to support reunification. During the 1956 Border Campaign to reclaim the six stolen counties, fund-raising activities were instigated as well as letter writing campaigns to convince American political leaders to bring pressure on Britain to abolish the border. When the campaign ended in 1974, the name of the Anti-Partition Committee changed to the Freedom for All Ireland Committee (FFAI) and a gentle Hibernian with the heart of a lion, refused to allow the dream to die. His name was Martin Higgins and he began to guide the FFAI Committee to provide funds for the people in northeast Ireland who were victims of oppression. He started a Christmas Appeal to bring hope to the disheartened families in Northern Ireland suffering discrimination. The AOH FFAI Fund has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to make life more tolerable for the families who were victims of a biased administration during the years of violent unrest. Martin expanded the donor base of FFAI with the support of Suffolk County, NY ladies Division President, Christina McCormack, who convinced the Ladies Auxiliary at County and State levels to establish their own FFAI Chairs. A National Chair soon followed. After Martin passed away, Chairman Mike Cummings began a close association with other like-minded organizations and the aid began to increase. In the early days of the troubles, the AOH National Board voted An Cumann Cabhrach and the Green Cross as its two official charities aiding the families of those interned by the British.
In 1992, Brendan Moore took the reins of the FFAI committee and expanded to include many more related charities. The annual Christmas Appeal was expanded to each Division in the Order and proved to be one of the most successful programs of the AOH/LAOH, raising hundreds of thousands for needy families. The committee also supported the besieged Holy Cross School where Loyalist fanatics had been harassing arriving young Catholic school girls and pelting them with urine-filled balloons. Monetary assistance to school administrator, Father Aidan Troy allowed him to refurbish a building located between the two communities and open it as a Community Center providing a healing influence; the harassment soon stopped. Father Troy was later chosen as a recipient of the Sean MacBride Award, given by the AOH in recognition of his significant contribution to the cause of peace.
AOH aid also helped reconciliation with support for cross community basketball programs, choral groups and the St Patrick Center in Downpatrick. The most important contribution however, was AOH support for the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to the north. Though the peace was unstable owing to the unpredictable demands of Loyalists, the AOH continues to pressure politicians on both sides of the pond to resolve each crisis. During the negotiations, AOH National leaders met with both Loyalist and Nationalist leaders to reconcile differences. In one instance, a letter from the National Board to the IRA urging decommissioning of arms was followed two weeks later by an order from Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, to dump arms. Through it all, AOH support was continued to resettle the nationalist community in the form of vocational training and rehabilitation for former prisoners and their families who were still denied full rights. Thus came AOH support for such organizations as Father Des Wilson’s Conway Mills, Tar an All, Coiste na nIarchini, the Pat Finucane Center and Relatives for Justice. No other organization has been as steadfast and effective as the AOH in brokering the peace in Northern Ireland; the thanks for the AOH effort given by Sinn Fein is testimony to the success of that endeavor.
Ever since the terrible massacre of Irish civilians by British paratroops on the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday, 1972, members of the AOH have traveled to Derry on the anniversary of that event and marched with the people of Derry demanding justice. After 38 years and one bogus report, the British finally admitted that the actions of their Army that day were unjustified and unjustifiable. The people of Derry were ecstatic with excitement and a letter was immediately sent to the National Board of the AOH in America which read, in part, Not a year passed since 1972 that AOH members from all over the U.S. didn’t congregate on our streets to demand TRUTH. Now we have it, my friends. This is a victory for you as much as for us. You are always welcome on the streets of Derry.
In spite of the victories won, the reunification of Ireland is yet to be achieved. In the interim, AOH supports Athar Saile, an Irish American organization dedicated to assisting former political prisoners who relocated to the U.S. and face extradition issues and legal fees.
REMEMBERING THE GREAT HUNGER
Perhaps the greatest monument erected by the Order was to the victims of An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger) across from the Ennistymon Workhouse and mass grave in Co. Clare. On 20 August 1995 – the 150th anniversary of the tragedy – a dream came true as the combined National Boards of the AOH, LAOH and BOE gathered to dedicate that memorial. At the unveiling, Dail Eireann’s Minister of State, Donal Carey, noted that this was: the first national monument in all of Ireland to the victims of the Great Hunger and it took the AOH to do it. It was a proud moment for Hibernians, and a visible indication of what unity can achieve. The monument was based on a note found in the archives of the Workhouse preserved in the Ennistymon Library. It had been pinned to the shirt of a barefoot orphan left at the workhouse door on the freezing morning of Feb 25, 1848. One side of the memorial has a child standing at a workhouse door; on a panel across from that is the head of an anguished mother and two hands clenched in anger above the sorrowful text of the pleading note which read:
There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about 4 years. He is an orphan, his father having died last year and his mother expired on last Wednesday night and is now about being buried without a coffin unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the Workhouse Gate expecting to be admitted, if not it will starve.
After the An Gora Mor monument was erected in Ireland, individual Divisions throughout the United States erected their own memorials, not only to the memory of the victims of the Great Hunger, but to the courage of those who survived the journey and persevered in the slums of a strange new land to become contributing members of the new nation that they and theirs helped to shape. They became the bricks and mortar of the Irish American community we enjoy today, as the AOH was called in the pages of the prestigious Irish Echo.
In 1981, AOH National President, Jack Connolly, stopped into a BOE hall in Ireland. His historic gesture, opened dialogue between the two branches of the Order and resulted in the visit of a group of Belfast Hibernians to Boston and New York to march in their St Patrick’s Day parades. Hospitality was provided to visiting Hibernian officials during the next few administrations, but little of significance occurred until 1992 when Board of Erin Secretary, Frank Kieran, visited America. Hibernian hospitality was extended by the American Board and, in conversations held during that visit, it was proposed that the two branches consider a joint project. At the 1994 National Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, the joint project of the Great Hunger memorial in Ireland was announced.
Many Divisions in Ireland remain in close contact with the American AOH, have traveled to American National Conventions and are extremely hospitable to American AOH members who travel to Ireland. A significant event took place on August 12, 1995, just after the American Board had arrived in Ireland for the Great Hunger Memorial dedication. It was the first joint meeting in history of the AOH National Boards of America, Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales. That meeting opened a new chapter in Hibernian history, which was confirmed by the hospitality extended in Hibernian Halls in Counties Louth, Down, Antrim, Belfast and Derry where the American Board was hosted and celebrated. The American Order also marched in solidarity with the Board of Erin AOH in Derry in commemoration of the Feast of the Assumption.
When the 2016 Centennial of the Easter Rising was planned, the executive board of the AOH and LAOH were invited as special guests of the Irish Government. National Historian, Mike McCormack, was invited to make the opening remarks at the Arbour Hill Grave of the Patriots on the Saturday start of the 3-day commemoration. See: aoh.com/aoh-video-archive/#arbourhill.
As a result of those historic gatherings and marches, the divisions of the past have been buried, and the AOH now stands, not only as the oldest Catholic Lay organization in America, but as the largest Irish Catholic society in the world with Divisions across the United States and close ties with the autonomous AOH organizations around the world like the independent families of one great clan!
THE AOH IN AMERICA TODAY
In America, the Division is the basic unit of the Order. Divisions are combined into County Boards, which are in turn governed by State Boards and an overall National Board elected every two years. Annual dances, concerts, and parades sponsored at all levels of the Order raise millions for charity while providing a showcase for the positive contributions the Irish have made in every walk of American life. Divisions and Hibernian Halls across the country have traditionally provided a welcome for new immigrants. Here, the unique art, dance, music, history and other interests of the Irish are fostered and preserved, making the AOH a home away from home for many. They are at the forefront of support for issues concerning the Irish such as Immigration Reform, MacBride Legislation and the Right to Life. They serve their Church well, yet, they never forget their ancestral homeland, and can always be found lobbying, praying and working for the total independence of a united 32-county Ireland –– as their constitution avows: all means constitutional and lawful”.
The initials AOH may tell the story best. Those who say it means Add One Hour are describing the easygoing, no rush attitude of many of its members, while America’s Only Hope has been used to define the loyalty of the Irish to the principles of their adopted land. In any case, its members are best described by the statement, To be Irish is a Blessing, To be a Hibernian is an Honor.
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