Thursday, May 24, 2007

Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians Part I

The majority of Americans can trace their ancestry back to immigrants who made the decision to leave everything they knew behind, for a chance at better lives in a new and foreign land. Upon their arrival many of these immigrants joined ethnic organizations as an important means of socialization in adapting to their lives in America. These organizations provided mutual assistance for members during times of need, provided a network of information on employment, and gave people a sense of belonging in a strange world where one longed for the comforts of the native homeland. Scholars such as Kerby Miller, Lawrence McCaffrey, and Andrew M. Greeley have written extensively on the Irish-American experience and organizations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) in America. While the majority of the literature focuses on the male perspective of ethnic organizations and immigrant life, it is necessary to give a voice to the female perspective in the area of immigration, an area that is still somewhat overlooked in immigration history.[1]

Hasia Diner and Janet Nolan have written about the experiences of Irish immigrant women in America, but these past efforts focused primarily on a narration of their lives.[2] This study takes an in-depth look at one of the ethnic organizations in which Irish immigrant women took part. The Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians (LAOH) was one organization that both Irish immigrant and Irish-American women could join. While membership in the LAOH was widespread throughout the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Ohio organization stands out as particularly significant. Ohio became the home to many Irish immigrants as they worked their way westward on the canals and railroads. Many Irish settled in the cities of Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Youngstown. Divisions of both the AOH and LAOH sprang up in these cities. The state of Ohio had one the largest AOH and LAOH memberships in the nation at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and contributed important officers to the organization on the national level.

The LAOH’s scope of activities changed from the early twentieth century to the late twentieth century and this shift in activity can be traced to changing societal roles for women. Most importantly, the activities of the LAOH helped to maintain the link with native Ireland. Members also worked to keep the heritage alive among American-born generations who may not have felt a close connection with their ancestral roots without the organization. The AOH and LAOH “developed in the nineteenth century as… provident association[s] devoted to the advancement of the interests and welfare of Irish immigrants.”[3] In order to understand the history of the LAOH it is necessary to take a look at the history of its male counterpart, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), its rate of growth in the number of divisions and members, and finally, the activities of the LAOH organization.

The AOH is one of the oldest Irish organizations in the United States. It was founded in 1836 in New York City as a Catholic lay organization for people born in Ireland and later, people born of Irish descent in the United States. The roots of the AOH stretched back to Ireland where the precursor to the American AOH was founded in 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 older original Ancient Order of Hibernians in Ireland. The AOH was created in New York in response to the rise of nativists’ bigotry against the Irish. The nativist movement was a response to increasing numbers of immigrants, especially the Irish coming into America to flee hunger, disease, and death in Ireland.[4] They feared that increasing numbers of immigrants would harm America economically and felt Catholicism threatened their Protestant nation. Of these three, “anti-Catholicism was the core of nativism from the 1830s through the 1850s.”[5] Many well-known individuals such as Reverend Lyman Beecher and Samuel F. B. Morse “believed in an international conspiracy, engineered by European despots, mainly the Hapsburgs, to use Catholicism as a wedge to destroy American liberal democracy.”[6] After nativists burned down an Ursuline convent in Massachusetts in 1834, “a wave of shootings, hangings, and burnings” were carried out against the Irish immigrants.[7] In order to understand this bigotry and hatred of the Irish, it is necessary to see what was being said about them. Wealthy Protestant George Templeton Strong provides an example of typical rhetoric in a journal entry that described the Irish as “brutal, base, cruel, cowards and as insolent as base; they came from a land populated by creatures that crawl and eat dirt and poison every community they infest.”[8] During the 1850s, a nativist group called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner or Native American party (Know Nothings) became the main nativist group to attack Catholic and especially Irish immigrants.[9] To try and halt the Know Nothings attacks on both Irish people and Church property, the AOH began to “stand guard to defend Church property.”[10

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 arrived as members in good standing from the Irish Order,” and provided networks which facilitated employment and upward mobility for their members.”[11] The AOH was also instrumental in the “preservation of Irish culture and traditions in America.”[12] As the nativist 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.”[13] 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 American Irish assimilated.”[14] Between the years of 1856 and 1921, over three million Irish immigrated to the United States, increasing membership in the AOH.[15] However controversy over membership in the AOH developed. In 1884, the AOH debated whether or not American born Irish could be admitted as members.[16] Members of the AOH decided that American born Irish could be admitted to the order in addition to those who were born in Ireland.[17] This decision ensured that AOH membership would remain strong after the Irish born members died and that their American born children could carry on the traditions and the work of the AOH.

[1] Andrew M. Greeley, The Irish Americans: The Rise to Money and Power (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), ______, The Most Distressful Nation: The Taming of the American Irish (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972), Lawrence J. McCaffrey, The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America (United States: Catholic University of America Press, 1997), & Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).
[2] Hasia Diner, Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983) & Janet Nolan, Ourselves Alone: Women’s Emigration from Ireland, 1885-1920 (Lexington, Kent: University Press of Kentucky, 1985).
[3] Reginald Byron, Irish America (Great Britain: Clarendon Press, 1999), 246.
[4] Information contained in paragraph was garnered through a variety of sources such as the national website of the AOH located at and newspapers from the AOH national newsletter, The National Hibernian Digest. The National Hibernian Digest archives are located at: Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, Manuscript Collections, Philadelphia, Penn.
[5] McCaffrey, The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America, 99.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 100.
[8] Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History (London: Pearson Education Limited, 2000), 117-118.
[9] Michael F. Holt, “The Politics of Impatience: The Origins of Know Nothingism” The Journal of American History, Vol.60, No. 2 (September, 1973), 309-331.
[10] Taken from the Ancient Order of Hibernians website history page.
[11] First quote taken from: and second quote from: Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 500.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Kenny, The American Irish, 148-149.
[15] Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 346.
[16] Ibid., 535.
[17] John O’Dea, History of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Ladies Auxiliary, published by the authority of the National Board of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (Philadelphia: Keystone Printing, 1923), 1066-1072.