AOH National President Judge James McKay
By Ray O’Hanlon
The Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians are gathered on the banks of the Ohio River this week for their 2018 National Convention.
And bringing matters to order in Louisville will be a man long familiar with the use of a gavel.
Judge James F. McKay will be running for his second two year term as AOH National President while presiding over a biennial convention that in many respects will be straddling the old and the new.
Old in that the perennial principles of the Hibernians will be lauded and confirmed; new in the manner in which the order delivers its message across a continent to existing members, and hoped-for new ones.
The AOH currently has divisions in 42 states, including this week’s host state of Kentucky.
The plan is to have divisions in 48 states a year from now.
Technology is the key to this expansion and for sure there will be many active fingers and thumbs in the Galt House Hotel between Wednesday and Saturday, the convention’s business days.
There will also be internal business, elections of AOH and LAOH national officers, and discussion into the late hours on a range of issues.
Judge McKay, who is Chief Judge for the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, will be centrally involved in all of it.
So how does he assess the past two years in terms of his presidency? Has his first term met with his expectations?
“First of all,” he said, by way of response to a series of questions, “it seems like it went by in six months.
“I would also include the word hectic because it is a full time job. I can see why some Hibernians will wait until they retire before they seek this office.
“However, that being said, I had eight years to prepare myself for this position, having gone through the challenge of two terms as treasurer and vice president. I have a great team of officers, which has helped us move forward as an organization.”
Have there been any surprises, or unexpected aspects, to his presidency thus far?
“One of the differences between being national president today versus fifteen years ago is that now, with social media as it is, when problems arise, you don’t have two weeks to think on it. Sometimes you have to reply in thirty seconds.
“That presents a challenge to me partly since I am not a child of the electronic age. However, I have intentionally surrounded myself with those who are. Together, we formed a marketing, promotion and advertising committee that is helping us use the internet and social media to move our order forward.
“Thirty years ago, the epicenter of Hibernianism revolved around the New York, Philadelphia corridor. It has now evolved, to a great degree, in the Washington, D.C. arena as well.”
Does he think the AOH is sufficiently political in its actions, needs to be more active and vocal, or less so?
“First of all, let me say that I have always considered the Hibernians in America to be the voice of the Irish in this country,” Judge McKay responded.
“The fact that we have been around for over 180 years and with our presence in every metropolitan area in this country, has afforded us a great deal of experience when problems arise concerning the Irish, not only in this country but Ireland as well.
“We walk a very fine line as far as political actions are concerned. We are not a political organization and don’t purport to be.
“However, there are times when we will take public stands if a moral question is present that affects our Catholic Faith, or a united Ireland.
“We try to work with Dublin and Belfast as much as we can and tend to offer our network capabilities to them when public opinions are in the process of being formed. Because we are of Irish descent, we tend not to shy away from the limelight, but we try to be more guarded today then we have been in the past.”
When it comes to what Judge McKay sees as the “core” of AOH business the one word description of that is a constant: membership.
“Membership has always been on the front burner of our national order since its inception, it’s no different today,” he says.
“Our numbers have swelled and diminished over the decades depending on the problem occurring in Ireland. Who cares about the past when we have no future, and our future is in membership.
“We have attempted, technologically speaking, to drag our order from the 19th century to the 21st century in the last ten years.
“We are embracing modern technology and because of this we are starting new divisions in states that were never part of our makeup historically, states such as Arizona, Idaho, Tennessee, Alabama. We are encouraged by this expansion, which is directly related to the new technology approach in addressing these problems.
“We have two workshops scheduled for our entire membership during our convention one of which will be “Growth and Publicity” presented by a 27 and a 37-year-old Hibernian. Our membership is getting younger.”
Judge McKay will present himself to the convention as a candidate for a second two year term as national president. LAOH National President Patricia O’Connell will step down after her new term of office and a successor will be elected.
So what does Judge McKay hope to accomplish in the next two years. What will be his priorities?
“If I am elected to a second term I will strive to institute some of the changes we made internally in regard to technology, committee lobbying and so forth. Naturally, if I have a second term I would like our order to be bigger, better, richer than I found it.
“I would also like to pass the baton on to the next generation of leadership with a sound foundation in the 21st century, with the flame of Irish unification still burning bright, and that we will become a beacon of faith for our church.
“I hope that we continue to get the sons and grandsons of past members into our organization to promote the good that Ireland represents here in America.
“And beyond increasing membership, it is important that the order has a feeling of stability about itself, that we set a good course with a good crew, and that members can have a feeling of confidence.
Judge McKay’s vision for expanded membership means not just New York, Boston and Philadelphia but, as he puts it, “Toledo, San Francisco, Boise.”
Along those lines the 2020 national convention is already set for Orlando and the 2022 gathering could end up being in Pittsburgh, Denver, perhaps Reno.
All this is a reminder that as deeply rooted the AOH is in history it is widely rooted, and increasingly so, geographically.
This week the geographic center is Louisville; the mission is historic, and the means of carrying it out increasingly technological.
But at the epicenter are the men and woman who make up the AOH and Ladies AOH. They agree on many things, but some have differing views on some things.
“You have to keep the peace,” said National President McKay.
Sounds like a job for a judge.