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The Ancient Order of Hibernians
by Mike McCormack, Past 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

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 language.

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."
Copyright 2017, Ancient Order of Hibernians
Ancient Order of Hibernians
Our Lady of Knock Division
Hamilton Co, Cincinnati, OH
Friendship, Unity, and Christian Charity