The history of the Irish American Community and the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Rockland go back to the beginnings of Rockland County and our Nation. Irish American’s such as General Anthony Wayne and Colonel Richard Butler had fought at the Battle of Stony Point, a battle whose significance is sadly often overlooked now, but one that was both an overwhelming victory for the Americans and the last major battle to be fought in the Northern Colonies. After the Revolution, Rockland County’s first judge, John Suffern founded the town that now bears his name, but Judge Suffern originally named it New Antrim after his birthplace County Antrim, Ireland.
At the turn of the 19th Century, Irish immigrants began immigrating in large numbers, seeking a land where a person’s opportunities where not dependent on one’s parentage or limited by ones religious affiliation. Many were drawn by the prospect of employment in Haverstraw’s Brick works that would be the chief building material of the growing Metropolis of New York and other cities. More than a few found that America was a land of magic, where immigrant alchemist could combine hard work and freedom to convert clay bricks into gold and make their fortune.
However, even the original Eden had its serpent, and Rockland and America had one of their own: the growing rise of anti-Irish/anti-Catholic nativism expressed by the “Know Nothings”. While history records the despicable attack such as Boston in 1834, where a mob incited by the Rev. Lyman Beecher (father of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe) burned the Ursuline Convent to the Ground, it overlooks that a year earlier the very first Seminary established in New York on 162 acres in Nyack was also burned down in “suspicious circumstances” shortly before its completion.
It was to counter such outrages and to protect Irish Americans and the Catholic Church from continuing outrages that the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) was formed. Through harsh necessity in the face of oppression in their own homeland by a foreign government, the Irish had a long history of banding together under the bonds of “Friendship, Unity and Christian Charity” to stand up to oppression and to protect community and church. The AOH was formed in New York City in 1836. When nativists attempted to burn down Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the AOH surrounded the Cathedral to protect it. When confronted by men of resolve, not unsurprisingly the nativists in the typical character of bullies backed away. Neither Old St. Patrick’s nor any other church in New York City would be burned.
History is often a study in irony, and few things are more ironic than that a few years later Irish Americans of the 69th New York State Militia, to be named in respect by their enemy Robert E. Lee as “The Fighting 69th,”would march pass the same Old St. Patrick’s, the site where their ethnicity and religion was attacked as “un-American”, to fight in a war to secure freedom and civil rights for others in the American Civil War. Copious flows of Celtic blood shed in defense of their new country at Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg began to weaken the foundations of hate and nativism while ensuring that the world’s greatest beacon of liberty was not extinguished.
After the Civil War, while anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudices still existed (and sadly continue with us to this day) the renown that Irish Americans won on the battlefield caused a marked decline in overt prejudices and allowed the Order to focus on fraternal and charitable works. The Hibernian movement was introduced into our county in the little town of Haverstraw, its first officers were elected on April 5th, 1882. There are no records known of parades at that time, but Newspapers mention Hibernian picnics, the precursor to our current annual Rockland County Feis, where tens of thousands gathered to enjoy Irish dancing and singing competitions. The Hibernians also contributed to the building of St. Peter’s Church in Haverstraw and its adjoining school. At St. Peter???s a young priest from Canada would say his first mass assisted by a local altar boy. The Priest, Fr. Francis Duffy, would go on to fame years later as the Chaplin of the Fighting 69th, the young altar boy, Michael A. Donaldson, now a giant of a man would be a member of the same regiment and earn the Medal of Honor.
Dark days though were coming for the nation and the Irish American community of Rockland. New building materials and building methods resulted in a decline in the demand for Haverstraw bricks. The rich clay deposits that provided the raw material for the bricks were beginning to be tapped out. The final blow came with the great depression, causing industries to close and workers to migrate for better opportunity. The AOH in Haverstraw was disbanded in the early 1930’s. However, Hibernianism wasn’t dead in Rockland, merely in stasis as the country and Irish Americans directed their energies to the financial crisis of the 1930’s and in fighting to preserve freedom in the 1940’s.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s a second wave of Irish American immigration hit Rockland’s shores. This wave was composed of Irish immigrants and first and second generation Irish Americans who having rose in the ranks of civil services and the professions were pursuing the American dream of home ownership in the suburbs. They quickly sought to reestablish the social networks and community of the neighborhoods and parishes they had left behind. They naturally turned to the AOH as a means in coming together in “friendship, unity and Christian charity.??? A new Division 1 was formed on February 26, 1962 fittingly enough going back to their roots at St. Peter’s in Haverstraw. They were followed in quick succession by Division 2 in New City, Division 3 in Pearl River. Later they would be joined by Division 4 in Suffern and Division 5 in Blauvelt. Subsequently, divisions of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians (LAOH), a separate and independent organization but committed to the same Hibernian principles, were formed in the same localities.
Within a year, the newly reconstituted AOH had given out over $50,000 dollars in charities and held their first parade to honor the patron Saint of Ireland and the Archdiocese and the symbol of Irish heritage and culture. While with typical Irish conviction (which some mistake for stubbornness) few of the founders would be surprised that the charitable works and the Parade they founded fifty years ago are still keeping the tradition alive today. They may be surprised that Rockland County is now home to the largest Division of the AOH in the country and the parade has now grown to be the second largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York, an event that draws tens of thousands of people yearly from across the nation and the globe.
May the shadow of the Rockland County AOH, and the heritage and traditions it symbolize, never grow less…….
Neil F. Cosgrove