The great waves of immigration from Ireland to America were just beginning when in May, 1836 a group of Irish Catholic men in New York and Pennsylvania formed a benevolent society called the Hibernians, this to help newly arrived immigrants. The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), as they became known, were linked to a group called The Defenders in Ireland, which fought oppressive British landlords and provided protection to priests.
A Mass at the Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s this weekend will mark the 175th anniversary of the AOH, the longest tenure of any such ethnic or fraternal organization in the U.S. New Yorkers know well the Hibernians for their proud, full presence, and long association with the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Each St Patrick’s Day, New York’s Archbishop reminds Mass goers of the Hibernians’ response in 1854 to the pleas of then Archbishop John Hughes to defend the original St. Patrick’s Church at Prince and Mulberry streets against threats by Nativist bigots to burn it.
The Hibernians headquarters was nearby. The “Know-Nothings,” as they were called, had succeeded in burning an Ursuline Convent in Massachusetts and St. Augustine’s Church in Philadelphia, but they failed to destroy the cathedral, recently designated a basilica by Pope Benedict XVI.
Despite the anti-Catholic bigotry and anti-Irish sentiment prevalent in America in the late 19th and early 20th century, the AOH grew.
At its peak in 1916, the AOH was led by Pennsylvania Congressman McLaughlin and boasted 250,000 members from Portland, Maine to Yreka, California.
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Century old Hibernian halls still stand in Bristol, Pennsylvania, Butte, Montana and in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. And an example of their many gifts to churches can be found in two stained glass windows in St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Long Island City.
Today, the AOH is still assisting Irish immigrants, promoting immigration reform, and advocating the peaceful re-unification of Ireland.
It remains a strong voice for truth about the persecution and killings of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland and for justice for the many victims of the conflict.
The National President of the AOH, Seamus Boyle of Philadelphia, has recently appealed to President Obama, this week packing his bags for his visit to Ireland, to demand greater cooperation from the British in the search for truth on the unsolved murders of nearly 1000 Catholics during the modern Northern Ireland Troubles.
The record of the AOH in America is unique not only for its long tenure, but also for its singular efforts to commemorate in art, word and deed the contributions and sacrifices of Irish and Irish-Americans to the growth and defense of the country, to the welfare of the Catholic church, and to Ireland’s peace and prosperity.
That is a legacy for which all Americans can be proud.
Michael J. Cummings is a former AOH national archivist.