The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) is one of the oldest Irish organizations in the United States. The AOH has played an important role for Irish Americans culturally, historically, politically and socially. It was founded in 1836 at the Saint James Church in New York City as a Catholic lay organization for people born in Ireland and later, to people born of Irish descent in the United States. The roots of the AOH stretched back to Ireland where the precursor of the American AOH was founded in the year of 1565 to defend Catholic Ireland against Protestant Britain. The American AOH’s motto of “friendship, unity, and Christian charity” was based on that of the original Ancient Order of Hibernians in Ireland. The AOH was brought to New York by Irish immigrants in response to the rise of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner or the Native American Party’s (Know Nothings) bigotry against the Irish. To try and halt the Know Nothings attacks on both Irish people and Church property, the AOH served as guards in order to defend Church property from attack.
Most early AOH activities remain unknown as the society was founded upon the basis of secrecy. In addition to defending Church property, the organization assisted Irish immigrants financially who came to the United States as members of the Order back in Ireland, and provided networks which facilitated employment and upward mobility for their members. The AOH was also instrumental in preserving Irish culture and traditions in America. As the Know Nothing movement dissipated after the American Civil War, the AOH shifted its focus from defending property to “charitable activities in support of the church’s missions, community service, and the promotion of preservation of their Irish cultural heritage in America.” (AOH website) Organizations such as the AOH did not hinder assimilation into America, but felt “the development of an ethnic identity expressed through a rich institutional and associational life was the primary means through which the Irish assimilated.” (Kenny, 148-149) Between the years of 1856 and 1921, over three million Irish immigrated to the United States, increasing membership in the AOH. However, controversy over membership in the AOH developed. In 1884, the AOH debated over whether or not American born Irish could be admitted as members. Members of the AOH decided that American born Irish could be admitted to the order in addition to those who were born in Ireland. This decision ensured that AOH membership would remain strong after the Irish born members died and their American born children could carry on the traditions and work of the AOH.
The Order is organized at the local, state, and national levels. Divisions make up the local area, while County and State boards oversee the work of the Order for that state and all are governed by a National Board which is elected every two years. Although the National Board provides direction for the organization overall, it is up to each individual state and its divisions to determine what activities that the organization will focus upon. Each division decides what activities they will purse amongst the four goals of the AOH.
The first goal is for Ireland to be united as a thirty-two county republic. The AOH has played an important role in promoting the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. They began to collaborate with other Irish-American groups such as the Irish American Unity Conference (IAUC). Divisions provided opportunities to learn about the issues in the north so that they can find ways to get involved in the process. Some examples of this are the speakers forum which brings in speakers to help divisions understand Irish political issues such as Jim Gallagher of the IAUC and the teachers from the Holy Cross School in Belfast.
The second goal is protecting and defending their Catholic faith. During the years that nativism was a force in American politics, the AOH had to address specific nativist threats and defend their churches from attack in cities such as Boston and New York. In other states, such as Ohio, the organization had to address claims about not being loyal Americans. They fought back such claims by focusing on a campaign to honor Irish-Americans who had fought for America’s freedom during the Revolutionary War. They also had to contend with defamation where the Irish were perceived as drunken troublemakers. The AOH has been successful in proving their loyalty to America and took on defamation that is still present in today’s society. However, there is still work to be done on the defamation front that needs to be addressed, such as the continued perception of Irish as “drunks.”
The third goal of the AOH is to preserve and promote Irish culture. Throughout the history of the organization, Hibernians have promoted and preserved Irish culture not only for its own members, but also for the communities in which live in as well. Irish history, music, literature, step-dancing, and historic preservation are brought to the local communities by the divisions in order to illustrate the importance of preserving and promoting Irish culture so that future Irish-Americans may have the chance to learn of their own unique cultural heritage as well. The organization builds upon the past, present, and future of Irish culture in order to foster the ideals and perpetuate the history and traditions of the Irish people [and] to promote Irish culture.” (AOH Constitution preamble)
The final goal is for divisions to embrace the AOH’s motto of “friendship, unity and Christian charity” by encouraging divisions to help out their local communities. In the beginning, the AOH provided Irish immigrants with financial assistance who were AOH members in good standing from the Irish Order. Local divisions assisted immigrants with obtaining jobs and social services as well. While Irish immigration to the United States is longer the major charitable cause of the AOH, divisions now focus on dealing with various Catholic action issues and by supporting their local communities in a variety of ways such as Habitat for Humanity builds, Red Cross blood drives, visiting the sick, conducting fundraising drives for charities, taking up donations for food banks, and other charitable activities within a division’s community. National Catholic action initiatives in which local divisions take part are projects such as religious vocations, pro-life and hunger in America issues. At times, it can be a struggle for members to become involved in contentious issues such as abortion while others such as hunger are more easily defined and easier to be involved with.
The AOH helped Irish immigrants to adjust to life in America through employment and housing while keeping the cultural traditions of Ireland alive in the hearts of their members. In the twenty-first century, the organization has helped Irish-Americans to go beyond the green beer aspect of their Irish heritage and to use the organization as an eye-opener to that heritage that gives Irish-Americans a unique identity. Many aspects of Irish culture, such as music, dance, literature, and history have exposed Americans to the culture of Ireland in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. As membership continues to increase and as new divisions form throughout the United States, the link between Ireland and the United States will continue to remain strong not only in the present, but the future as well.
Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History (London: Pearson Education Limited, 2000), 148-149.
Ancient Order of Hibernians Constitution Preamble (c. 2000), Uncatalogued materials, Ward M. Canaday Center, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio.