AN UPDATED HISTORY
THE ANCIENT ORDER OF HIBERNIANS IN AMERICA
by Mike McCormack
This updated history of the origins and activities of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) was completed by the National Historian’s Office in June, 2020. The difficulty in preparing this history were increased by the partisan character of a large portion of the evidence. James Madison well remarked, that the Irish nation has been as much traduced by the pen of history as it has been by the rod of power; so has the history of the AOH. Many well-meaning authors have recorded the genesis of our Order as they heard it from their elders or those they considered knowledgeable. Yet, memories and hearsay, while valuable, are poor foundations on which to build an accurate history. History is not just a ‘thing of the past’; it is a living study. Research constantly revises old beliefs, confirms former myths and reveals truths behind what was once considered legend. In addition, advances in digital technology make many formerly unobtainable documents available allowing us to double-check references and validate source data not previously practical. We are in a better position today to evaluate what early authors wrote about our history by returning to the sources they used, free from conflicting opinions of their day while consulting recent scholastic resources unavailable in their time.
My interest in Irish history intensified as I became Historian at the Division (1968), County (1978), NY State (1984) and National (1988) levels requiring monthly offerings. By 1998, I was so deep into the history of the AOH itself that I surrendered the County office allowing more research time. The more I learned of Ireland’s early history, the more convinced I became that our early histories of the AOH were inaccurate – even some that I had penned myself using the early writings as source data. However, before challenging them, I had to be sure and began a chase for facts. It was a long chase involving the purchase of rare books and travel, but I would not change it for the world; it was that worthwhile.
Now the true story of our origin and of those who wrote the story before us can be told. They were not wrong, they were just creative with what they had at hand and, in some cases, swayed by their own interpretation. Without access to the mountains of research now available, they created a scenario that matched the persona of the Order at the time. The early AOH was an organization of caring Irish, who stood against all threats to their heritage and homeland. How better to define that defiance than to claim all the similar societies that inspired them as predecessors. Then they, who still opposed an alien presence in Ireland, chose an early defender of that land like Rory O’More as an icon of that sentiment and founder. And as organizational unity was a point of pride, why not model it on the legendary societies of old, even if they weren’t really connected. And if that pride forced them to assumptions that fit the footprint they hoped to leave, who could challenge their right to do so? But now time to synchronize our origins with the actual history of those turbulent times in Ireland as recently revealed.
As so much more historical data exists today, we run the risk of being thought of as keepers of a fairy-tale istory, more legend than fact. Therefore, while applauding our early authors for their creativity and accuracy in defining our purpose, we should also know the true story for it is just as fascinating. This presentation contains the latest information gleaned from 40 years of first-hand research into the works of validated historians and independent authors as well as interviews with knowledgeable experts, the assistance of dedicated AOH Historians at all levels, museum archives and personal experience. The information contained herein is divided into eighteen categories which I hope you will enjoy:
To determine the origin of the AOH, we went to the earliest versions written by Hibernians themselves. Most seem to have used an early version of the Order’s origin, written by Thomas McGrath in 1898, as source data. He wrote: According to such authorities as MacGeoghegan’s and Mitchell’s, Wright’s, Leekey’s(sic), O’Holleran’s, and Robinson’s histories of Ireland, it (the AOH) was organized in 1565 by one Rory Oge O’Moore in the county of Kildare, Province of Leinster, Ireland. In 1565, the Earl of Sussex issued a proclamation making the penalty death to any priest found in the Province of Leinster. It was then that Rory Oge O’Moore organized the Defenders. Hoping to expand on that, we began our quest and were led to a totally different conclusion!
We then consulted the History of the AOH written by John O’Dea for the 1922 Encyclopedia Americana. In it he cites our origin in the Military Order of the Golden Collar formed by King Munemon around 900BC, for the defense of the island when menaced by the Romans. We finally located the only reference to Munemon and a ‘Golden Collar in the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, MS: Laud 610. This ancient manuscript previously owned by the McCarthys of Desmond until early 1500, lists a pedigree from the Milesian leader, Mil, to Nuadat of whom is written: the seventh son from Nuadat was Munemon. In his time Gold was on necks in Ireland (lunula). His son was Akllergdoat who first invented bracelets on hands. That earliest reference to Gold Collars in Ireland indicates affluence rather than a Military Order. Project Gutenberg Book of Bronze Age Ireland puts early Irish Lunula at 1800 – 1500BC. And the Romans never menaced Ireland, they didn’t even reach Britain until 55BC.
In 1923, O’Dea published a 3-volume History of the AOH in which he revised our origin with King Munemon to 1300 BC (not 900) with the Order of the Golden Chain (Niadh Nask). We found no evidence of such an Irish order, but what we did find was what Ireland’s Sunday Times called the greatest Irish genealogical and heraldic fraud of modern times in a 1999 exposé. Terence MacCarthy of Belfast claimed to be a Gaelic Chief, MacCarthy Mór, Prince of Desmond and head of an Eóghanacht Dynasty. His claim was based on a society known as the Niadh Nask, an ancient order whose members wore a golden chain. In July 1999 Ireland’s Chief Herald issued a statement that: the decision to grant recognition to Mr MacCarthy as MacCarthy Mór is to be regarded as null and void and the pedigree registered for Mr MacCarthy in 1980 is without genealogical integrity. According to Sean Murphy at the Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies: MacCarthy’s account of the Niadh Nask was laden with historical distortions and outright fabrications. O’Dea’ account then goes through a litany of ‘ancient orders of pagan Ireland from Finn MacCumhall’s Feni Erin to the Red Branch Knights of Uster. He calls them all: ancient Hibernian orders with rules, vows, ceremonies and constitutions not unlike those which operate today in our society. Today, any historian can easily refute that.
In 1948, Ntl Organizer George Reilly who became Ntl President in 1954, wrote Hibernians on the March in which he repeated O’Dea’s Order of the Golden Collar adding: whose members were knights. He also noted that in the sixth century they became the defenders of religion when at that time there was no external threat to the faith.
O’Dea and Reilly also noted: Rory O’Moore revived the ancient orders in the Confederation of Kilkenny in 1642. We found that there may have been an O’More involved in the 1641 Ulster rising whose leader was Richard Butler until July 1642 when Owen Roe O’Neill returned from Spain to lead the Irish and later join with the Anglo-Irish in the Confederation of Kilkenny. The Anglo-Irish negotiated with King Charles and the Confederation split. O’Neill advocated independence and the Anglo-Irish favored an Irish parliament under the English crown. Meanwhile England’s Puritan Parliament began a civil war, King Charles was executed, Cromwell came to Ireland and the Confederation was crushed! No revived AOH there, but our writers did the best they could with what they had.
Early in our research we visited Gerry Maguire, a member of the Cavan County Council. He introduced us to Eugene Markey, the Curator of the Co. Cavan Museum in Ballyjamesduff, a recognized expert in the history of Irish secret societies, who had just opened an exhibit called Banners and Flags. In it were early AOH banners, but none before the mid-1800s and Mr. Markey convinced us, in no uncertain terms, that the AOH was an American society exported to Ireland – not the other way around. That was confirmed by author Pearse Lawlor, whose research material on Irish history includes a manuscript on AOH history in northern Ireland. In Derry we were allowed to search the minutes of Division 1, which do not go back far enough, nor does the Belfast Division and Dundalk Division which started in 1890. Dr. Wallace of the National Museum of Ireland could give us no earlier date. We then did in-person interviews and internet enquiries to confirm Mr. Markey’s version of an American origin.
With a committee under National President Ned McGinley, we visited the town historian of Mauch Chunk, PA where one of the two original American AOH Divisions started as national HQ. With what we learned, we went back to the sources quoted by McGrath. We bought MacGeohegan & Mitchel’s National History of Ireland (1758) but only found: In 1522 the O’Morras and O’Connors and other Chieftains threatened the frontiers of the English province and: in 1528, O’Connor attacked the frontiers of the English province and carried off considerable booty. It also noted: in 1530, the Lord Deputy laid waste to O’Morras’ territory in Laois (not Kildare) and: in 1565, Kilkenny was attacked by the O’Morras. The History of Ireland by Thomas Wright (1849) covers the warring Norman earls of Ormond and Desmond and O’Neill, with no mention of O’More or trouble in Leinster. Historian William Lecky’s History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (1892) covers a later time. However, in an opening chapter on Ireland before the 18th Century, Lecky noted that during Elizabeth’s reign: The Irish Chiefs showed great indifference to religious distinctions and the English cared more for the suppression of the Irish race than for the suppression of its religion. There was little real religious persecution on the one side and little real religious zeal on the other. . . the cause which was more important was the confiscation of Irish land. He also confirmed: it was begun on a large scale in Leinster in the reign of Mary I (1553-58), when the immense territories belonging to the O’Mores, the O’Connors and the O’Dempseys were confiscated and planted with English colonies. The reference to Robinson’s is a History of the Church of Ireland by Rev. Thomas J. Robinson and Sylvester O’Halloran’s History of Ireland from the Earliest Times to 1171 (1850) covers the hereditary ownership of Ireland and the listing of clan and family names up to the coming of the Normans and denies Norman legitimacy over the Irish despite the submissions but makes no mention of the theft of land from the O’Mores and O’Connors and coverage ends before 1565. Despite the absence of information confirming the Irish formation of a secret oath-bound society in 1565, we did verify clan names in Co. Laois and accept that O’More and O’Connor were defenders (lower case d) of their lands in 1565, but the society called Defenders (capitol D) was a point of confusion.
The society called Defenders wasn’t formed until 1784 near Ballymacnab, Co. Armagh, to oppose Protestant Peep o’ Day Boys raiding Catholic homes. Brendan McEvoy’s Peep of Day Boys and Defenders in the Co. Armagh (1986) revealed that: The Defenders started as independent local groups, defensive in nature, but by 1790 they merged into a secret oath-bound fraternal society consisting of lodges, associated to a head-lodge led by a Grand Master and committee. McGrath had also noted that: In 1565 the Earl of Sussex issued a proclamation making the penalty death to any priest found in the Province of Leinster. It was then that Rory Oge O’Moore organized the Defenders. We now know that in 1565, while O’More was a defender of his lands, he was not a Defender! Nor does he appear to have been a protector of the clergy, as that need had not yet arisen.
Further, in a biography of the Earl of Sussex in the Luminarium Encyclopedia of English History we find: in 1564, commissioners were sent from England to report on the condition of the Irish government, and charges of corruption were brought against Henry Radcliffe, fourth Earl of Sussex who was committed to prison in January 1565. Also, there was little religious persecution in 1565 since Mary I as Queen of England until 1558 had reversed Henry’s reformation and Elizabeth had yet to seriously promote it; in fact, as late as 1579 she was even considering marriage to France’s Catholic Duke of Anjou.
Another element of confusion was introduced by the fact that Rory O’More was a family name handed down through the generations. From several O’More sources on the internet, we learned that the Rory Og O’More, who fought the English invaders after Queen Mary confiscated O’More lands, had a grand nephew, also named Rory O’More, who was involved in the 1641 rising in Ulster; however, we have found no evidence of anyone with the O’More name associated with the 1784 Defenders. (See Addendum) With that clarification, we should explain why oath-bound defensive societies were formed in the first place!
Around 330 AD, history’s best-known forgery, the Donation of Constantine, was attributed to Roman Emperor, Constantine, granting the western part of his empire to the Pope and his successors. Composed by an unknown in the 8th century, by the 15th century it was shown to be a forgery. Another forgery was penned by Gerald de Barry in his 1188 History of Ireland that told of a Papal Bull, Laudabiliter, supposedly authored by Pope Adrian IV (the only English Pope) which granted Ireland to Henry II based on that Donation of Constantine. Gerald, a low-level cleric, seeking a Bishopric from Henry, was not above false praise to achieve his goal. While Bishops required religious consecration, Kings could offer candidates since Bishops were officials of their state. Thus, Gerald created a baseless Papal Bull to legitimize Henry’s invasion of Ireland 17 years earlier. First, Ireland was not part of Constantine’s Empire so he could not have given it away. Second, Gerald’s fictional Bull, was backdated to 1155 to justify Henry sending Norman knights to Ireland in 1171. Neither document has ever been found and most historians agree they were bogus. In truth, Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, deposed by High King Rory O’Conor, requested Henry’s help to regain his throne and that is what brought the Normans to Ireland.
The Normans liked what they found and as more came and settled in, they began to adopt Irish customs, including Irish Brehon Law instead of Norman Feudal law. It was even said by historian Sylvester O’Halloran that ‘they became more Irish than the Irish themselves.’ But 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 under Edward III invoked the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367 forbidding the Normans to adopt Irish customs. 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 by taking more Irish land. And thus, it began! After Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome in 1533, he declared the Church of England as the State religion. His daughter, succeeding as Mary I, reversed the religious Reformation started by her father while still confiscating Irish land. Her attempt to restore Church property previously seized by the Crown was largely prevented by her Protestant Parliament but planting English settlers on Irish land continued and renaming Counties Offaly and Laois as Kings and Queen’s County led to many conflicts.
After Elizabeth I came to power in 1558, she agreed to re-establish Henry’s Reformation through her empire, of which she considered Ireland a part – though the Irish didn’t agree! Religion thereafter became a reason to confiscate Irish land as her Protestant Parliament added new restrictions and punishments for non-compliance. The restored Reformation was also marked by confiscation of the Roman Church’s wealth and the Papacy launched a counter-reformation. Ireland became a battlefield between the two as the Irish, who embraced the faith brought by St. Patrick, became targets of a campaign to reduce Rome’s power by turning the Irish to the Church of England. The Irish clung to their faith which drove the English to extremes in repression. However it wasn’t until 1691 that Penal Laws were imposed depriving the Irish of political, educational and economic rights in their own country, banishing Catholic bishops and restricting other clergy. Member of Parliament (MP) Edmund Burke described the Penal laws 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.
Before 1691, the Irish had only contested the theft of their lands and early opponents were, in fact, 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. According to the League of Ireland, Ireland’s Wars (2012): Ireland, by the mid-1520s, was rapidly coming to a boil as feuds between Anglo-Irish Nobles were getting worse. The religious fractures that were taking place in England and the rest of Europe were not yet fully felt in Ireland, but it was only a matter of time. That time came in 1691, with their religion outlawed and clergy on the run, the Irish became an underground society practicing their faith in secret. As conflicts became more religious-oriented, secret societies were formed to protect values under attack. Groups like Whiteboys, Blackfeet and Defenders not only attacked landlords but grew to include protection of the Roman Church and clergy.
In time, some societies were suppressed, but reorganized under new names for the same defense of faith and homeland. History provides us with the names of some societies, but limited details. It has been claimed that the motto of the 1790 society called Defenders was Friendship, Unity, and True Christian Charity, but the secrecy in which they operated left no records to verify that. However, according to Professor Kevin Kenny in his Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (1998), we do know that: 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 societies whose purpose was to safeguard tenants’ rights.
THE IRISH IN EARLY AMERICA
As a result of persecution, many Irish fled to other lands seeking a better life. Those who chose America often wondered if they had made the right choice. Colonial America was an extension of England in customs and traditions and, though American historians claim religious freedom, that freedom did not include Catholics, except in parts of Maryland. 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 family names and religion to avoid intimidation against their loved ones and some Protestant Irish even adopted the counterfeit designation of ‘Scotch-Irish’ to distinguish themselves from those who courageously refused to hide their heritage. History shows that the early settlers of Scotland actually came from Antrim’s Dal Riada and modern DNA verifies that relation. As the Irish lent their hand to the winning of American independence, Catholics 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 as 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 several crop failures up to and including the Great Hunger of 1845-52.
As the Irish population grew, anti-Catholic forces carried 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 often resulted. Objections from the growing Irish population finally forced the city to ban such effigies in 1802. Then in 1806, parishioners of St. Peter’s – the first Catholic Church in New York State – filed a petition to allow a Catholic to sit in the State Assembly and Irish-American (Longford roots) State Senator DeWitt Clinton passed a bill that abolished the oath. That so angered nativists that on Christmas Eve that year, they attacked St. Peter’s and were held off by the Irish community whose homes were subsequently attacked and burned.
Anti-Catholic bigotry, cloaked as American patriotism, emerged in extreme intolerance in the 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 fellow laborers suffering from Cholera near Malvern, PA and were not only refused aid, but all 57 were assaulted, killed and dumped in unmarked mass graves and in 1834, the Ursaline Convent in Massachusetts was burned down. 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 that had been formed as Irish benevolent, fraternal societies to care for their own, assumed the responsibility of protecting the values under attack. In various areas, groups like the Hibernian Friendship Society in 1831 Arlington, VA; the Society of St. Patrick in 1832 Pottsville, PA; the O’Connell Guards in 1836 Manhattan, NY 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 morphed into the same type of secret societies that had protected them in Ireland.
SECRET SOCIETIES EXPORTED
In the 1820s, Ireland’s Ribbon Society expanded to include smaller societies in England and Scotland which were formed to protect Catholic rights and promote the independence of Ireland. Since the name Ribbonmen was outlawed by the British, branches began to spring up under the names of the Hibernian Benevolent Society and the Hibernian Funeral Society. Following suit, the church also forbade secret societies although some refused the name change and retained the name of Ribbonmen. In The Glories of Ireland (Phoenix Ltd. 1914), edited by J. Dunne and P.J. Lenox, we find 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 combining of small societies into a larger organization for defensive purposes was also about to happen 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 part of the wording was recalled as:
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 doesn’t identify the organization and only one signer has been found. In 76-year-old John Denvir’s 1910 book, Life Story of an Old Rebel about his life in Liverpool, he wrote: I was too young to have known John Murphy, who signed the letter for the Liverpool Hibernians, but, from what I knew of these men afterwards, it is likely that he was a dock laborer. If Murphy was a member of the Hibernian Funeral Society in Liverpool, then the letter was truly from representatives of 14 Ribbon Society Branches! Further, while some accounts say it was a reply to a request from America, there is no record of the requesting letter. Mindful of the secrecy involved, it was likely from the renamed Ribbon Society hierarchy to former Society members who had emigrated. The Irish signatories listed are from areas where the original Defenders existed and the Irish Ribbon Society operated before changing their name to the Saint Patrick’s Fraternal Society
Years later, that wording was replicated on an AOH letterhead. This is absolutely incorrect since the name AOH was not used until at least 1838 and it gives the mistaken impression that there was a parent AOH organization in Ireland. That may have been intentional since at the time there was a jurisdictional dispute between the AOHs in America and the Board of Erin as to which was the parent organization. Further, challenging the accuracy of its wording, it accepts members ‘of Irish descent which was not allowed in either early society at the time and it is addressed to the ‘Brothers in New York’ when the original AOH national headquarters was in Pennsylvania.
According to The Miner’s Journal newspaper in Schuykill County PA and records of PA Hibernian Historian, John Garrah, a contingent of coal miners from the local Hibernian Benevolent Society (HBS) traveled to New York’s St Patrick’s Day parade in 1836. While there, they met with a group of like-minded activists from the Saint Patrick’s Fraternal Society (SPFS) – the same names that Ireland’s Ribbon societies had adopted in 1825 in Ireland and England. The discussions at the meeting were not recorded, but since nativist anti-Irish-Catholic activity was becoming a national threat, it is more than likely that they agreed to consolidate into one major protective society just as they had done in Ireland. Many of the men in both groups had been members of Ribbon Society branches in Ireland before emigrating to the States and they likely agreed that the time had come for an American branch of that Society. It seems that they agreed to write to the Irish headquarters of the Ribbon Society for permission to organize a branch of that society in America.
THE AOH IS BORN
The members of the HBS returned to Pennsylvania and two months later a 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 Manhattan, NY’s St. James Church – the second oldest Catholic Church in the 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. As for the name, Hibernian surely came from the PA brother’s society, but we learned that many were also former members of the Ancient Order of Foresters, the largest friendly society in Ireland whose constitution called for ‘government for Ireland by the Irish people in accordance with Irish ideas and Irish aspirations.’ It is not hard to see a happy combination of titles for this new organization which was to be part of neither but held to the ideals of both!
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 an AOH Secretary and certainly knew that the 1851 Charter (as he called it) was a Certificate of Incorporation in NY State under the name AOH; as for the ‘Charter’ in 1836, he never said it was to the AOH, as others later assumed, since it was not known as AOH at the time; the years as well as differing views have also altered the wording.
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, Pennsylvania AOH Historian John Garrah has found no records to authenticate that during his many years of research. To further confuse the issue, a misleading plaque was mounted on the wall of St. James church on the 100th anniversary of the AOH in 1936. The plaque 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. It was a time when some on the committee still believed that the Board of Erin existed before 1836. The previously cited interview with Eugene Markey of the Co. Cavan Museum and an expert on secret societies, confirmed otherwise. Considering research done in more recent time by valid historians, insulated from conflicting predetermined opinions, a more likely scenario appears.
It is that former Ribbonmen in America met in NY in March 1836 and agreed to form branches of that Society in America. Permission, requested from the SPFS in Ireland, was granted in 1836. Even though the exact wording of the original document has been compromised, we know that one did exist. 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 different society than the one that still existed in Ireland and England. 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. In addition to organizing workers to reform abusive labor conditions, there were other issues facing the early Order like defense against know-nothing bigotry in hiring and housing, opening membership to Irish-Americans so that American-born sons of one Irish parent could join and, of course, a growing loyalty to America. Further an anti-British sentiment was growing in the freedom of America that would prove unacceptable to a parent society in a colonial Ireland. As more societies, with various names, began to join, the decision was made to incorporate as an organization under a new name to indicate their new direction and in 1851, they incorporated in New York State as the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The early AOH remained a secret, defensive organization and not much is known of its specific activities. Membership was well-guarded from bigots and restricted to Irish Catholics. 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, wrote 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 westward migration, but afterward Bishop (later Archbishop) John Ireland renewed the appeal by writing in 1874, 75 and 76 to state and national AOH leaders regarding thousands of acres he purchased from the railroad and offered it to Irish Catholics from American city slums 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 west. In 2008, a young Protestant boy from Minnesota performed the story of Bishop Ireland’s settlement at a National History Day competition 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 recognizing the Ribbon Society as a parent and some Ribbon Society branches in Ireland even changed their name to AOH in the late 1840’s to acknowledge that relationship. Through the years the American AOH kept close ties with the Irish societies which later became the AOH Board of Erin (BOE). As the Order grew world-wide from Canada to Australia, the American AOH in 1887 entered an agreement to recognize the BOE as the titular head of a world-wide AOH organization based on Irish values and even offered stipends of $5.00 to any immigrating member from the BOE and allowing the BOE to periodically generate a password to be used by all. Ten years later, McGrath would begin writing his history of an Irish origin presumably to cement that agreement. However, the AOH in the U.S. was still uniquely American. A separate Constitution defined such differences as membership for Irish by descent so their sons could join, recognition of a loyalty to the U.S. and a growing anti-British public militancy. Then in 1894, they added a Ladies Auxiliary.
However, the American AOH always acknowledged that its roots lie in those ancient Irish societies organized to defend Gaelic values and claiming a continuity of purpose unbroken back to the earliest defenders of that heritage in 1565. That left many to assume incorrectly that the AOH had been formed in Ireland in 1565, especially with the misleading early written accounts by McGrath, Reilly, O’Dea and others, 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 with many Irish Godfathers.
American Nativist or 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 mistaking 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. Just before the threat on St Patrick’s in 1844, the Irish neighborhood of Philadelphia had been put to the torch. Nativist bigotry reached a peak in 1854. When stones were contributed from many nations to build a monument to George Washington, construction of the Washington monument was halted when Nativists stole 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, as members of earlier protective societies, they 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, was 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 recognition of human rights in Northern Ireland and launched a campaign to force municipalities to withdraw funds invested in Northern Ireland businesses that did not support Catholic equality in hiring. Many states removed their investments as a result.
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, 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 (Div 327), Carfin, Hamilton and Port Glasgow (Div 210) which opened in 1934. There are AOH parades each year around Inverclyde, Port Glasgow and North Lanarkshire. However, since they are a British province, Irish military tunes are not allowed by their bands. In the late-1800s, the first AOH Division in Canada was formed in Quebec’s 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. The island, in the St. Lawrence River off Quebec, was a quarantine station in 1847 and the Cross is 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 mass graves for near 12,000 victims of An Gorta Mor who never left the island. The cross is engraved on three sides in French, English and Irish; 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 Irish side 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.
That is not the only memorial to those who fled the Hunger unsuccessfully. Men and women of the AOH and LAOH in Massachusetts erected a memorial in 1914 to the memory of 99 men, women and children, escaping the Great Hunger, who made it to the shores of America in 1849 on the Brig St. John, only to be tossed by a fierce storm onto the rocks of Cohasset shore where the ship broke up and they were drowned. A Mass and memorial ceremony, sponsored by the AOH, is held at the monument every year. New York’s Nassau County AOH also supports an annual memorial at the grave of those Irish immigrants who drowned on two shipwrecks off the coast of Long Island, NY in 1836 and 37.
After the failed 1848 rising, Young Irelander Michael Doheny came to New York and was joined 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 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, as 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 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 offices. In the midst of all these issues, another major issue arose that caused the AOH to 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 to help tenant farmers, a U.S. branch of the League was formed by his sister Frances in Bordentown, NJ. In 1883, Parnell morphed the Land League into the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and a Philadelphia convention of Irish organizations was held to support the new party in their fight for an Irish Parliament through Home Rule. The AOH endorsed Home Rule and Alex Sullivan, a former member of AOH Division 8, Chicago, aspired to Presidency of the new American branch. He was nominated by Andrew Brown, AOH County delegate from St. Louis, who guaranteed 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. However, without consulting the membership, the assessment was so ordered.
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 and John Nolan was elected National Delegate.
On August 26, the ‘expelled’ Board sent a notice 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 even met, the New Yorkers sent Mr Nolan to the Irish AOH with the promise that he would confirm allegiance of the American AOH to the Board of Erin if they would support him for National Delegate and name them the legitimate AOH. The notice also reported that the Irish order, 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 then 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 American Order, an intellectual disgrace, and had sacrificed the whole Order 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 use of the name. 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 Bishops and Cardinal Manning condemned Parnell who wasn’t even Catholic and it split the IPP. After Parnell died in 1891, the religious posture of the BOE dictated their decision to condemn Parnell for his affair and ostracize his supporters. That condemnation was reflected in the 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 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 the 1887 agreement, recognizing the BOE as titular head, for their introduction of politics into the Order. And it was done!
The 1894 Omaha Convention was the first to see the American AOH 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 since their origin. They had even changed the title of the head officer from Delegate to President to indicate that he would no longer be a delegate to the previously agreed-on international AOH convention. Some of the Irish BOE members continued to correspond with the BOE in America, while others recognized only the original AOH in America. In 1886, National Delegate Nolan of the American BOE had traveled to the BOE Convention in Ireland to stop them from communicating with the original AOH in America. He charged that some of the BOE had continued supporting the American faction and as a result the animosity which split the American Order was exported to Ireland and they too split with expulsions and law suits resulting on both sides of the Atlantic.
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 among others. 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 with O’Connor as President of all. Tensions remained high between the AOH in America and the Board of Erin for many years afterward and was further cemented by the appearance of more militant nationalism. The more pacifist AOH BOE never swayed from their political support for an Irish parliament still subservient to the Crown 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 and supporting IPP leader John Redmond in urging Irish Volunteers to join the British Army to fight in WWI.
This again strained relations with the American AOH who supported both the militants and the workers, sending money and supplies to the striking workers as well as to the Hibernian Rifles. 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 eventually took part in the Easter Rising. Meanwhile the American AOH was hosting nationalist representatives like Padraic Pearse, Bulmer Hobson and other Irish Republican leaders on speaking and fund-raising tours of America.
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 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 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 LAOH now had more jurisdiction over its own affairs. Their first action 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 tasteless greeting cards have ridiculed the Irish as no other ethnic group. National President Nick Murphy even bought stock in Hallmark cards so that he could legitimately attend their stockholders meeting and publicly denounce the treatment of our national holiday before their board of Directors. He secured a promise that the practice would cease. Other members have collected insulting cards from a store’s display and hid 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. Today 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 LAAOH 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 joint AOH and LAAOH donated $1000.00 each to Catholic University of America 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 3-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 one of the two original Divisions of the 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 several rows of 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 positioned by their forefathers. 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 races 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 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 omission of Irish contributions from those texts were never restored 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 regarding 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 a member’s son or daughter 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 to present the Awards and praise the educational activities of the Order; 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 schoolbooks 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 exercises. 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, 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, Exposition Universelle was held in Paris to celebrate achievements of the past century. A huge international World Fair with 76,000 exhibits from around the world attended by 57 million people, the Expo awarded the AOH 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 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 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 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 were not 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 was 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. In 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 and Mike McCormack who chaired the memorial committee. 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, National Historian, Mike McCormack, 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 9 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 societies 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 aid 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 help the nationalist community with 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 that success.
Ever since the terrible massacre of Irish civilians by British paratroops on the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday, 1972, members of America’s AOH have traveled to Derry on the anniversary of that event and they 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 from Derry was immediately sent to the National Board of the AOH in America. The letter 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.
While awaiting the reunification of Ireland, the American Orders also support Athar Saile, an Irish-American organization assisting former political prisoners relocated to the U.S. and facing extradition and legal fees; Holy Cross in Ardoyne; EALU (escape in Irish) Center for Republican ex-political prisoners; New Lodge Commemoration Committee; Tyrone AOH; Cairde in Strabane; St. Patrick Centre in Downpatrick; Duchas Oiriall in South Armagh; Bridges beyond Boxing in Belfast; Down Patriot Graves; Green Cross; Belfast National Graves, Omagh Basketball and the Omagh Choir.
REMEMBERING THE GREAT HUNGER
Perhaps the greatest monument erected by the Ancient Order of Hibenians was to the victims of An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger) under American AOH and LAOH Presidents Ed Wallace and Kathy Linton. It was erected across from the Ennistymon Workhouse and mass grave in County 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 in County Clare to dedicate that memorial which they had jointly funded with the Clare County Council. 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 all Hibernians and a visible indication of what unity can achieve. The monument is today a tourist attraction and tell the true story, in no uncertain terms, of am artificial famine.
The monument was based on a note found in the archives of the County Clare Workhouse preserved in the Ennistymon Library. It had been pinned to the shirt of a barefoot orphan boy left at the workhouse door on the freezing morning of 25 February 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:
Gentlemen, 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.
Rob S., Constable
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 newspaper.
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 now 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 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/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, with members in all 50 of the United States, but also with close ties with the autonomous AOH organizations that make up the largest Irish Catholic society in the entire world like the independent families of one great clan!
THE AOH IN AMERICA TODAY
In America, Divisions, as the basic unit of the Order, combine into County Boards, which make up 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 contributions made by the Irish in every walk of American life. Hibernian Halls across the country provide a welcome for new immigrants and a source of heritage and history for others. Here, the unique art, dance, music, history and other Irish interests are fostered, making the AOH a home away from home for many. They support issues concerning the Irish such as Immigration Reform and the Right to Life. They serve their Church, yet 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: “by 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 forefather’s 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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