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The Ancient Order of Hibernians History
by Mike McCormack, AOH National Historian

The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) is the oldest Catholic lay
organization in America. Officially formed in New York in 1836, it was born in
anger centuries earlier in Ireland, after successive invasions by those who
tried to master the Irish, and alter their Gaelic life style. Inflexible opponents
like the Vikings were fought until their power was broken; others, like the
Normans, were absorbed until they became as Irish as the Irish themselves.
Through it all, the Irish maintained their language, traditions, and religion. But
in the Sixteenth century, a concentrated attack, unswervingly focused on the
most precious part of their heritage - their religion - and proved to be their
greatest challenge.

Since the time of St. Patrick, the Irish had become such devoted followers,
and dedicated champions of Christianity, that Ireland became known as the
Isle of Saints and Scholars, sending missionary monks to the far corners of
the world. In contrast, the Church on the continent became more
materialistic, and protests against abuses of power by some clergy, led to
attempts by others to reform the Church. A period of Protestant Reformation
swept Europe in the 1500s, marked by Royal intrigues over control of the
Church's wealth. Conflicts over which religion could be practiced led to
violence in many countries. In England, the Reformation made inroads from
the reigns of Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, who finally declared the Church of
England (Anglican) as the State religion. At the time of this declaration,
Elizabeth considered Ireland part of her state, and even though the Irish
didn't agree with that assessment, the Roman Catholic religion, which St.
Patrick had brought them, and to which they had been faithful , was
proscribed and its clergy outlawed.

The Papacy launched a counter-reformation, and Ireland became a
battlefield between the two forces as the Irish, who had embraced the
Roman Church, became the target of a campaign to reduce the power of
Rome by converting the masses to Protestantism. Anglo Lords in Ireland
provided a base from which assaults on Irish religion were launched, and in
the conflict, great tracts of land were confiscated and given to Crown
supporters who professed the State' religion. They became the landlords
who governed the future of the native population. The Irish fought the theft of
their lands, and the persistence with which they clung to their religion drove
the English to extremes in repression. Penal laws disenfranchised Irish
Catholics from the political, social, and economic life of their own country;
with their religion outlawed and their clergy on the run, they became an
underground society practicing their faith in secret. Not surprisingly, secret
societies were formed to protect the values under attack. In various locales,
groups with names like Whiteboys, Ribbonmen, and Defenders were
identified with attacks on landlords, but each included in its avowed purpose
the protection of the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy. As time passed
and governments prevailed, some societies were suppressed, but most
immediately reorganized under a new name for the same purpose: defense
of faith and homeland.

History provides us with the names of many of these organizations, and
even limited details of some. We know, for example, that the motto of the
Defenders in 1565 was Friendship, Unity, and True Christian Charity, but the
secret manner in which these societies operated left few records for modern
analysts. As a result, a true history of their times may never be written.
Today's AOH with its motto "Friendship, Unity, and Christian Charity" is the
most recent link in the evolution of these ancient societies. Organized in
Ireland for the purpose of defending Gaelic values, and protecting Church
and clergy, it is the successor to the secret societies of old. Although the
name AOH can only be traced back to 1641, the organization can claim
continuity of purpose and motto unbroken back to the Defenders of 1565.
The extension of that organization to America came in much the same
manner as its birth in Ireland. The rise of the Native American Party, or Know
Nothings as they were called, ushered in an era of unparalleled bigotry in
19th Century America. Not only were "No Irish Need Apply" signs evident in
major American cities, but legislation, reminiscent of the penal laws was
sought against the immigrant population who, it was stated, diluted American
principles, and professed loyalty to a foreign prince - the Pope. The massive
influx of Irish, fleeing starvation and disease in their native land, and
professing the Roman faith, focused Know Nothing bigotry on that
unfortunate group.

After several attacks on Irish and Church property, the Irish immigrant
resorted to a familiar tactic. Those, who had been members of the AOH in
Ireland, banded together in this new land, and in 1836, formed an American
branch of their Order. True to their purpose, they stood guard to defend
Church property, and though actual attacks were few and far between, the
long, cold, and lonely nights of vigil were many. The early AOH in America
remained a secret society, and little is known of its activities except that it
provided a monetary stipend to immigrants who arrived as members in good
standing from the Irish Order, and they assisted Irish immigrants in obtaining
jobs and social services. Quite naturally, the early AOH Divisions were
nurseries for the preservation of Irish culture and traditions in America.

In large measure due to the significant contributions of the Irish in defending
the Union during America's Civil War, it became unfashionable to be
anti-Irish, and the bigoted Know Nothings faded away, taking their No Irish
Need Apply signs with them. The AOH, on the other hand, grew stronger,
following Irish immigrants as they worked their way across the country. As
the need for militant support of their Church dwindled, the AOH shifted its
purpose to charitable activities in support of the Church's missions,
community service, and the promotion and preservation of their Irish cultural
heritage in America. Today they stand, not only as the oldest Catholic Lay
organization in America, but as the largest Irish society in the world with
Divisions in Ireland, and 49 of the United States.

The AOH in America is partitioned into Divisions, County Boards, and State
Boards, and is governed by a National Board elected every two years. The
Division is the basic unit in the Order, and membership in a Division is
membership in the Order. Even County, State, and National Officers,
maintain membership in a local Division. Annual dances, concerts, and
parades sponsored by all levels of the Order raise millions for charity, while
providing a showcase for the positive contributions of the Irish to every walk
of American life. Divisions usually support local charities within their
geographic areas, while sending a portion of their monies to higher levels for
support of state, national, and international charities. Subcommittees are
often established to perform specific functions such as the administration of
an annual Feis or Festival, the raising of a historic memorial, or providing
instructions in such Irish subjects as history, bagpiping, dancing, and

The many Divisions and Hibernian Halls across the country have also
traditionally provided a welcome for new immigrants. Here, the unique art,
dance, music, and other interests of the Irish are fostered and preserved,
making the AOH Hall a home away from home for many. Together, they are
at the forefront of support for issues concerning the Irish, such as Emigration
Reform, MacBride Legislation, and the Right to Life. They never forget their
ancestral homeland either, and can always be found actively lobbying for,
praying for, and working for the total independence of a united 32-county
Ireland, as their constitution avows: "by all means constitutional and lawful."