by Mike McCormack, AOH National Historian
The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) is the oldest Catholic lay organization in America. Officially formed in New York in 1836, it was born in anger centuries earlier in Ireland, after successive invasions by those who tried to master the Irish, and alter their Gaelic life style. Inflexible opponents like the Vikings were fought until their power was broken; others, like the Normans, were absorbed until they became as Irish as the Irish themselves. Through it all, the Irish maintained their language, traditions, and religion. But in the Sixteenth century, a concentrated attack, unswervingly focused on the most precious part of their heritage – their religion – and proved to be their greatest challenge.
Since the time of St. Patrick, the Irish had become such devoted followers, and dedicated champions of Christianity, that Ireland became known as the Isle of Saints and Scholars, sending missionary monks to the far corners of the world. In contrast, the Church on the continent became more materialistic, and protests against abuses of power by some clergy, led to attempts by others to reform the Church. A period of Protestant Reformation swept Europe in the 1500s, marked by Royal intrigues over control of the Church’s wealth. Conflicts over which religion could be practiced led to violence in many countries.< In England, the Reformation made inroads from the reigns of Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, who finally declared the Church of England (Anglican) as the State religion. At the time of this declaration, Elizabeth considered Ireland part of her state, and even though the Irish didn’t agree with that assessment, the Roman Catholic religion, which St. Patrick had brought them, and to which they had been faithful , was proscribed and its clergy outlawed.
The Papacy launched a counter-reformation, and Ireland became a battlefield between the two forces as the Irish, who had embraced the Roman Church, became the target of a campaign to reduce the power of Rome by converting the masses to Protestantism. Anglo Lords in Ireland provided a base from which assaults on Irish religion were launched, and in the conflict, great tracts of land were confiscated and given to Crown supporters who professed the State’ religion. They became the landlords who governed the future of the native population. The Irish fought the theft of their lands, and the persistence with which they clung to their religion drove the English to extremes in repression. Penal laws disenfranchised Irish Catholics from the political, social, and economic life of their own country; with their religion outlawed and their clergy on the run, they became an underground society practicing their faith in secret. Not surprisingly, secret societies were formed to protect the values under attack. In various locales, groups with names like Whiteboys, Ribbonmen, and Defenders were identified with attacks on landlords, but each included in its avowed purpose the protection of the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy. As time passed and governments prevailed, some societies were suppressed, but most immediately reorganized under a new name for the same purpose: defense of faith and homeland.
History provides us with the names of many of these organizations, and even limited details of some. We know, for example, that the motto of the Defenders in 1565 was Friendship, Unity, and True Christian Charity, but the secret manner in which these societies operated left few records for modern analysts. As a result, a true history of their times may never be written. Today’s AOH with its motto “Friendship, Unity, and Christian Charity” is the most recent link in the evolution of these ancient societies. Organized in Ireland for the purpose of defending Gaelic values, and protecting Church and clergy, it is the successor to the secret societies of old. Although the name AOH can only be traced back to 1641, the organization can claim continuity of purpose and motto unbroken back to the Defenders of 1565. The extension of that organization to America came in much the same manner as its birth in Ireland. The rise of the Native American Party, or Know Nothings as they were called, ushered in an era of unparalleled bigotry in 19th Century America. Not only were “No Irish Need Apply” signs evident in major American cities, but legislation, reminiscent of the penal laws was sought against the immigrant population who, it was stated, diluted American principles, and professed loyalty to a foreign prince – the Pope. The massive influx of Irish, fleeing starvation and disease in their native land, and professing the Roman faith, focused Know Nothing bigotry on that unfortunate group.
After several attacks on Irish and Church property, the Irish immigrant resorted to a familiar tactic. Those, who had been members of the AOH in Ireland, banded together in this new land, and in 1836, formed an American branch of their Order. True to their purpose, they stood guard to defend Church property, and though actual attacks were few and far between, the long, cold, and lonely nights of vigil were many. The early AOH in America remained a secret society, and little is known of its activities except that it provided a monetary stipend to immigrants who arrived as members in good standing from the Irish Order, and they assisted Irish immigrants in obtaining jobs and social services. Quite naturally, the early AOH Divisions were nurseries for the preservation of Irish culture and traditions in America.
In large measure due to the significant contributions of the Irish in defending the Union during America’s Civil War, it became unfashionable to be anti-Irish, and the bigoted Know Nothings faded away, taking their No Irish Need Apply signs with them. The AOH, on the other hand, grew stronger, following Irish immigrants as they worked their way across the country. As the need for militant support of their Church dwindled, the AOH shifted its purpose to charitable activities in support of the Church’s missions, community service, and the promotion and preservation of their Irish cultural heritage in America. Today they stand, not only as the oldest Catholic Lay organization in America, but as the largest Irish society in the world with Divisions in Ireland, and 49 of the United States.
The AOH in America is partitioned into Divisions, County Boards, and State Boards, and is governed by a National Board elected every two years. The Division is the basic unit in the Order, and membership in a Division is membership in the Order. Even County, State, and National Officers, maintain membership in a local Division. Annual dances, concerts, and parades sponsored by all levels of the Order raise millions for charity, while providing a showcase for the positive contributions of the Irish to every walk of American life.
Divisions usually support local charities within their geographic areas, while sending a portion of their monies to higher levels for support of state, national, and international charities. Subcommittees are often established to perform specific functions such as the administration of an annual Feis or Festival, the raising of a historic memorial, or providing instructions in such Irish subjects as history, bagpiping, dancing, and language.
The many Divisions and Hibernian Halls across the country have also traditionally provided a welcome for new immigrants. Here, the unique art, dance, music, and other interests of the Irish are fostered and preserved, making the AOH Hall a home away from home for many. Together, they are at the forefront of support for issues concerning the Irish, such as Emigration Reform, MacBride Legislation, and the Right to Life. They never forget their ancestral homeland either, and can always be found actively lobbying for, praying for, and working for the total independence of a united 32-county Ireland, as their constitution avows: “by all means constitutional and lawful.