FAMOUS IRISH SOCIETIES
By JOHN O’DEA,
National Historian, A.O.H..
In the social organization of no nation of antiquity were societies of greater influence than in pagan Ireland. During many centuries these societies, composed of the bards, ollamhs, brehons, druids, and knights, contended for precedence. In no country did the literary societies display greater vigor and exercise a more beneficent power than in pagan Ireland. Although the Hebrews and other Asiatic nations had societies organized from among the professions, yet in Ireland alone these societies seem to have been constructed with a patriotic purpose, and in Ireland alone they seem to have had ceremonies of initiation, with constitutions and laws. These societies existed from the earliest times until after the coming of St. Patrick. Traces of them are visible during all the centuries from the conversion of Ireland down to the Anglo-Norman epoch, and it is apparent that the clan system and the introduction of the feudal system by the English failed to eliminate completely their influence.
When the Irish emigration flowed towards the American colonies in the eighteenth century, the social instinct early found expression in societies. One of the earliest of these was founded in Boston, where, in 1737, twenty-six “gentlemen merchants and others, natives of Ireland or of Irish extraction”, organized the Charitable Irish Society. In Pennsylvania, where the Irish emigration had been larger than in any other colony, the Hibernian Fire Company was organized in 1751. The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick was founded in Philadelphia in 1771, and about that time societies bearing this name were founded in Boston and New York, as convivial clubs welcoming Irish emigrants to their festive boards. These societies were formed upon the model of the Friendly Brothers of St. Patrick, which had existed in Dublin and other Irish cities a generation before, and was well and favorably known throughout Ireland.
The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Philadelphia contained some of the most prominent merchants and leading citizens of the city, and in 1780 they subscribed £103,000, or one-third of the sum collected, to supply the Continental army with food. Among its members were Commodore Barry, the Father of the American Navy; General Stephen Moylan; General Anthony Wayne; and the great merchants, Blair McClenachan, Thomas Fitzsimons, and Robert Morris. Washington, who was an honorary member, described it “as a society distinguished for the firm adherence of its members to the glorious cause in which we are embarked.” Whether upon the field or upon the sea, in council or in the sacrifice of their wealth, their names are foremost in the crisis of the Revolution.
The Hibernian Society for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland was founded in Philadelphia on March 3, 1790. Other Hibernian Societies, with the same title and organized for the same purpose, were founded in other cities along the Atlantic coast in the early years of the nineteenth century, but the Philadelphia Hibernian Society was, from the character of its members, the extent of its beneficence, and the length of its existence, the most famous. The emigrants from Ireland during the eighteenth century had pushed on to the frontier, or, in some instances, remained in the cities and engaged successfully in mercantile pursuits. The emigration which came after the Revolution was, however, in great part composed of families almost without means. Unable to subsist while clearing farms in the virgin forest, thousands were congested in the cities. The Hibernian Society extended a ready and strong hand to these helpless people, and not only aided the emigrants with gifts of money, but also secured for them employment, disseminated among them useful information, and provided them with medical attendance. While the Hibernian Society was regarded as the successor of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, yet the two societies, which contained largely a membership roll bearing the same names, flourished, in the work of patriotism, side by side. The first officers of the Hibernian Society for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland were: President, Chief Justice Thomas McKean; Vice-President, General Walter Stewart; Secretary, Matthew Carey, the historian; Treasurer, John Taylor. It was said that no other society in America contained so many men distinguished in civil, military, and official life as the Hibernian Society. In almost every city where the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and the Hibernian Society for the Relief of Emigrants were found, there was a close and intimate connection between them, which ultimately resulted in amalgamation.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians traces its origin to those orders which flourished in pagan Ireland, and which exercised so potent an influence upon the history of the Celtic race. The order of knighthood was the first of these orders to be founded. It existed from the earliest times, and is visible in the annals of the nation, until the Anglo-Normans invaded the land in the twelfth century. In pagan Ireland the knightly orders became provincial standing armies, and there are many glorious pages describing the feats of the Clanna Deagha of Munster, the Clanna Morna of Connacht, the Feni of Leinster, and the Knights of the Red Branch of Ulster. When the island was Christianized, these knightly orders were among the staunchest supporters of the missionary priests, and were consecrated to the service of the church in the sixth century, assuming the cross as their distinctive emblem, and becoming the defenders of religion.
Among the names which are upon the rolls of the ancient orders of knighthood are those of most of the kings, bards, saints, and statesmen, and in the long list there was no family of greater renown than that of Roderick the Great, to which belonged Conall Cearnach and Lugaidh, who, according to MacGeoghegan and others, were the direct ancestors of the O’Mores of Leix. In this family the ancient splendor of the knightly orders was a tradition which survived for centuries, and they were in almost continual rebellion against the English, from the siege of Dublin by Roderick O’Connor until the rebellion against Queen Elizabeth, led by Rory Oge O’More and his son Owen in the latter part of the sixteenth and the early seventeenth century. A nephew of Rory Oge, the sagacious and statesmanlike Rory O’More, revived the ancient orders in the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny in 1642. A grandson of Rory O’More, Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan, was the most distinguished commander of Irish armies who opposed, in Ireland, the forces of William of Orange.
There is no stranger story in all history than the intimate connection of the O’More family with the annals of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The lineage of this family furnishes the links connecting the ancient orders of pagan Ireland through the centuries with the Ancient Order in modern times. Under the names of Rapparees, Whiteboys, Defenders, Ribbonmen, etc., the Confederation of Kilkenny was carried on through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries until the nineteenth. At various times the duties of these organizations were subject to local conditions. Thus the Defenders were occupied in protecting themselves and their priests against the hostility of the Penal Laws, engaging in armed conflict with the Orangemen in the north, while the Whiteboys were waging war against the atrocities of landlordism in the south. Between these two organizations there was a secret code, which operated until they were combined, under the name of Ribbonmen, in the early nineteenth century. The contentions of the Whiteboys regarding Irish landlordism have since been acknowledged to be just, and have been enacted into statutes. The Defenders joined with Wolfe Tone in the formation of the United Irishmen.
About 1825 the Ribbonmen changed their name to St. Patrick’s Fraternal Society, and branches were established in England and Scotland under the name of the Hibernian Funeral Society. In 1836 a charter was received by members in New York City, and in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. The headquarters were for some years in Pennsylvania, but in 1851 a charter was granted to the New York Divisions under the name of “The Ancient Order of Hibernians.” New York thus became the American headquarters. National conventions were held there until 1878, since which year they have been held in many other cities biennially. Many of the most distinguished leaders of the Irish race in America have been members of the Order, and from a humble beginning, with a few emigrants gathered together in a strange land, the membership has grown to nearly 200,000. General Thomas Francis Meagher, Colonel Michael Doheny, General Michael Corcoran, and Colonel John O’Mahony were among the members in the late ’50’s.
Among the organizations which have sprung from the ranks of the A.O.H. were the powerful Fenian Brotherhood, the Emmet Monument Association, and scores of smaller associations in all sections of the United States and Canada. During the Know Nothing riots, the Order furnished armed defenders for the Catholic churches in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, and it has ever been foremost in preserving its position as the hereditary defender of the faith. In 1894, the Ladies’ Auxiliary was founded, and this body of women numbered in 1914 over 63,000, and had donated great sums to charity, education, and religion. The A.O.H. had, in 1914, assets of $2,230,000. It pays annually, for charity, sick and death benefits, and maintenance, over $1,000,000, and during its existence in America has donated nearly $20,000,000 to works of beneficence. One of the most celebrated of the gifts of the Order was the endowment of the Chair of Celtic in the Catholic University of America, and one of its greatest gifts to charity was its contribution of $40,000 to the sufferers from the San Francisco earthquake.
The Clan-na-Gael is a society organized to secure the independence of Ireland by armed revolution. Its organization is secret and it is the successor of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, called in America the Fenian Brotherhood, which promoted many daring raids and risings in Ireland in 1867. The I.R.B. was perfected by James Stephens in Ireland, and by John O’Mahony in America, from 1857 to 1867. An invasion of Canada was made in great force under the general direction of Colonel William R. Roberts, president of the Fenian Brotherhood, but was unsuccessful owing to the attitude of the United States Government, which declared that the Fenians were violating the principles of neutrality. After the disorganization of the Fenian Brotherhood, the idea of revolution languished until revived by the founding of the Clan-na-Gael by Jerome J. Collins in 1869, and the membership during the twenty years from 1880 to 1900 included almost fifty thousand of the flower of the men of Irish blood in America. The principle of revolution was first given organized public expression in America through the formation in 1848 of the Irish Republican Union, which was succeeded by the Emmet Monument Association, these societies influencing the creation of the Sixty-Ninth and Seventy-Fifth Regiments of the New York State Militia, and the Ninth Massachusetts, which became so famous for valor during the Civil War. Although not putting forth all its strength, so as to allow full scope to the parliamentary efforts to ameliorate the state of the Irish people, the Clan-na-Gael is as vigorous a section as ever of the forces organized for the service of patriotism.
The Land League, founded in Ireland in 1879, was transplanted to America in 1880, when the first branch was established in New York City through the efforts of Patrick Ford, John Boyle O’Reilly, John Devoy, and others. Michael Davitt soon after came to America and travelled through the country founding branches of the League. In a few years the whole American continent was organized, and in this organization Michael Davitt declared that the members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Clan-na-Gael were everywhere foremost. To the enormous sums collected by the League in this country, and to the magnificent labors of Parnell, Davitt, Redmond, Ferguson, Dillon, Kettle, Webb, and others in Ireland, is due in a large measure the present improved state of the people, resulting from the sacrifices made by those who supported this greatest of leagues devoted to the amelioration of unbearable economic conditions. A Ladies’ Auxiliary to the Land League was established by the sisters of Parnell, and was for some years a brilliant vindication of the power and justice of feminine participation in public questions.
The Land League, the name of which was changed to the Irish National League in the early ’80’s, having prepared the path to eventual victory, declined in potency after the political movement was divided into Parnellites and Anti-Parnellites in 1890. The elements composing these rival parties were, through the initiative of William O’Brien, M.P., and in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of the United Irishmen of Wolfe Tone’s day, joined in 1898 under the name of the United Irish League, John E. Redmond becoming the first president, and also the chairman of the Parliamentary Party which it had been instrumental in uniting. This organization is now a living, vital force in the affairs of Ireland on both sides of the Atlantic, Mr. Redmond being still its head, with Michael J. Ryan, of Philadelphia, as president of the American Branch.
The Knights of Columbus were organized in 1881 by Rev. Michael McGivney, in New Haven, Connecticut, and a charter was granted by the Connecticut Legislature on March 29,1882. At first the activity of the organization was confined to Connecticut, but the time was ripe for its mission, and it soon spread rapidly throughout New England. In 1896 it began to attract the attention of Catholic young men in other parts of the nation, and during the next few years its appeal was made irresistibly in almost every State. It now exists in all the States of the Union, the Dominion of Canada, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Panama, Porto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, and the Philippine Islands, with a total membership of 328,000, of whom 108,000 are insurance members and 220,000 associate members. Its mortuary reserve fund is $4,500,000, being over $1,000,000 more than is required by law. It is one of the most successful fraternal societies ever organized, and the Irish-American Catholics have given to it the full strength of their enthusiasm and purpose.
The temperance movement among Catholics was, from the visit of Father Mathew in 1849, largely Irish. The societies first formed were united by no bond until 1871, when the Connecticut societies formed a State Union. Other States formed unions and a national convention in Baltimore in 1872 created a National Union. In 1878 there were 90,000 priests, laymen, women, and children in the Catholic Total Abstinence Benevolent Union. In 1883 the Union was introduced into Canada, and in 1895 there were 150,000 members on the American continent. From the C.T.A.B.U. were formed the Knights of Father Mathew, a total abstinence and semi-military body, first instituted in St. Louis in 1872.
The Catholic Knights of America, with a membership chiefly Irish-American, were organized in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1877, and the advantages offered for insurance soon attracted 20,000 members. The decade of the ’70’s was prolific of Irish Catholic associations. The Catholic Benevolent Legion was founded in 1873, shortly followed by the Catholic Mutual Benevolent Association, the Catholic Order of Foresters (which started in Massachusetts and spread to other States), the Irish Catholic Benevolent Union, and the Society of the Holy Name, which latter, although tracing its origin to Lisbon in 1432, is yet dominantly Irish in America.
In the large industrial centres there are scores of Irish county and other societies composed of Irishmen and Irish-Americans, organized for the service of country and faith, beneficence and education, and all dedicated to the uplifting of humanity and to the progress of civilization. The ancient genius for organization has not been lost, the spirit of brotherhood pulsates strongly in the Irish heart, and through its powerful societies the race retains its place in the advance of mankind.
John M. Campbell: History of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and Hibernian Society; Maguire: The Irish in America; McGee: Irish Settlers in America; John O’Dea: History of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Ladies’ Auxiliary in America; Michael Davitt: The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland; Cashman: Life of Michael Davitt; T.P. O’Connor: The Parnell Movement; Joseph Denieffe: Recollections of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood; Articles in the Catholic Encyclopedia; Report of the Knights of Columbus, 1914; The Tidings, Los Angeles, 7th annual edition.