The Ancient Order of Hibernians is the oldest Irish Catholic Fraternal Organization and the largest Irish Catholic society in the world. Their mission is to promote Friendship, Unity, and Christian Charity. When their history is understood, their relevance throughout their existence becomes clear. Which is why my good friend and business partner Paul always enlightened me on his heritage.
After the Normans invaded Ireland in 1171, the English forbade their subjects to adopt the Irish culture. This produced an English upper class and an Irish lower class society resulting in conflicts between the two classes for hundreds of years. In 1533, Henry VIII established the Church of England as the official national religion, and prohibited Catholicism. Irish land was confiscated using religion as justification. Violence followed as the Catholic Irish were targeted to minimize Rome’s power and wealth. Because their religion was outlawed and their culture was suppressed, the Irish were forced to practice and protect their religion and culture as an underground society. After centuries of persecution in their homeland, many Irish sailed to the New World where there was hope of religious freedom.
Unknown to those fleeing Ireland, religious freedom did not include Catholics because Colonial America was still a British colony. They tolerated various Protestant religions but Catholics were shunned because the colonists believed that the Irish were subject to a foreign head of state, namely, the Pope. After the Irish helped the Colonies to win independence from England, they were tolerated but still banned from holding public office unless they renounced the authority of the Pope. The Irish population increased as did antiCatholic sentiment. Racist actions, like the celebrating of Pope Day, where straw effigies of St. Patrick were burned and desecrated, caused violence between Irish-Americans and British descendants.
Extreme intolerance toward Irish Catholics in the 1800’s resulted in segregation, job discrimination, and the emergence of violent gangs claiming patriotism as a justification for their racist acts such as burning Catholic Churches and Irish owned homes and businesses. Eventually, Irish fraternal organizations began forming to care for each other and to protect their values and culture. Groups such as the Hibernian Friendship Society and the Society of St. Patrick became more defensive as a result of abusive discrimination, but secrecy became necessary. One of the secret societies of Ireland, the St. Patrick’s Fraternal Society (SPFS) established branches in America in 1836 in both NY and PA, which quickly grew. Two years later, the SPFS of America took the name of Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). During the 1850’s, some of the defensive Irish fraternities coalesced into the Irish AOH. A common misconception is the AOH was founded in Ireland and brought to America.
As the years went by, Catholic Churches and Irish neighborhoods continued to be threatened and torched. The AOH continued to protect property and people and also provided monetary assistance to members. During and after the Civil War, Irish discrimination diminished. When the Ku Klux Klan emerged as a force of society, the AOH opposed them, as they opposed all ethnic bias. AOH fraternities were later established in England, Wales, Scotland, Canada, Virgin Islands, and Australia. The Ladies Auxiliary, Ancient Order of Hibernians (LAAOH) was established in 1894 exemplifying the acceptance and value placed on Irish women to an American society that still considered women second class citizens. Benevolence towards their fellow Irishman has always been a key factor of the AOH. As the Irish became more successful throughout the years, they supported various Catholic Charities and institutions. The AOH has provided disaster relief for events such as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the Hurricane Katrina floods. The Hiberian Hunger Project provides food for the hungry to honor those who starved in the potato famine in Ireland. The AOH promotes education by offering scholarship programs and essay competitions to encourage students to learn about the Irish contributions to literature, science, and the edification of the United States. Parades, dances, and musical events sponsored by the Order raise millions of dollars for charity.
To become a member, one must be a male of age 16 years or older, Catholic, Irish by birth or descent, citizens of the United States, or who have declared their intentions to become citizens of the United States. Members believe ‘To be Irish is a Blessing, to be a Hibernian is an Honor.