Who are the Ancient ORDER of HIBERNIANS? All you need to know

You might well have heard of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, but just who are they and what do they do? We outline everything you need to know about America’s oldest Irish Catholic fraternal organisation.

Who are the Ancient ORDER of HIBERNIANS? All you need to know.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) was formally established in the United States of America in 1836 and continues to grow today.

It was initially set up to protect clergy and church property from sectarian violence in the US and to facilitate the assimilation of the growing number of Irish immigrants to the country.

Today, the AOH continues to help incoming Irish immigrants and also aims to foster and protect elements of Irish culture, such as Irish dance and sports.

In this article, we look at the AOH’s history and reveal all you need to know about the world’s oldest Catholic secret societies.

Ireland Before You Die’s top facts about the Ancient Order of Hibernians:

  • The Ancient Order of Hibernians was established concurrently in New York City and in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania in 1836.
  • It has its roots in earlier Irish organisations, such as the Defenders and the Ribbonmen.
  • Members must be male, Catholic, and Irish (or of Irish descent).
  • Its biggest membership is in the United States of America, but it also has members in Ireland and in countries with a significant Irish diaspora, like England, Canada, and Australia.
  • It is the oldest Catholic lay organisation in the world and continues to grow today.

The origins of the Ancient Order of Hibernians – how the order started

The origins of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Credit: commonswikimedia.org

As mentioned, the AOH was established concurrently in both New York City and in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania in 1836. But its roots reach deep into earlier organisations in Ireland – namely, the Defenders and the Ribbonmen.

It came at a time of heightened anti-Catholic bigotry against the incoming Irish immigrants.

Catholic churches and convents were burned down, sick Irish railroad workers were refused medical treatment, and Irish neighbourhoods in cities like New York were routinely attacked.

The AOH was a secret society, meaning there is limited knowledge of their specific activities during their early years. The AOH aimed to protect the religion, culture, and values that formed such a huge part of the identity of Irish immigrants.

They also worked hard to assist in the assimilation of incoming Irish Catholics. The AOH helped them to find employment, housing, and a place in which they could feel comfortable celebrating their identity.

Division in the order – the 1884 split in the AOH

The split in the AOH.
Credit: Flickr / –Mark–

The AOH split in 1884, owing chiefly to a disagreement on the question of support for home Home Rule in Ireland. The debate about Home Rule led to a power struggle, the result of which was a split in 1884.

In the wake of the split, two splinter groups emerged – the Ancient Order of Hibernians of America and the smaller Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Board of Erin.

Antrim-born Bishop James McFaul encouraged reconciliation and chartered a merger that would bring the two factions back together in 1898.

During the split, the larger of the two groups formed a women-only auxiliary organisation – the Daughters of Erin. The daughters of Erin had around 20,000 members by 1897. It would later be named the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians (LAOH).

The AOH in Ireland – the formation of a group closer to home

The formation of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Credit: commonswikimedia.org

The AOH in Ireland was established in the late 19th century by Belfast-born politician Joseph Devlin. It cited similar reasons for its establishment as the US organisation – namely, anti-Catholic discrimination and marginalisation.

After the Easter Rising of 1916, membership outside of Ulster declined after Devlin headed an AOH convention that voted in favour of Ireland’s partition by 475 votes to 265. Many former members joined Sinn Féin and the IRA.

During the Troubles, the AOH imposed a voluntary ban on its parades. However, records exist of marches that took place in spite of this ban. 

While the AOH continues to be most closely associated with Ulster and the north, there has been a dramatic decline in membership since the Troubles.

The AOH today – how the order continues to play a role in US life today

How the order runs today.
Credit: commonswikimedia.org

Today, the AOH consists of divisions which combine into county boards; state boards govern the county boards.

A biennially elected national board presides over the AOH. It counts on over 46,000 members worldwide, including in 46 of America’s 50 states.

Its constitutional goal is twofold: to support the reunification of Ireland and to support and defend the Catholic Church. It also aims to immortalise important Irish Americans with monuments across the country.

The AOH organises parades, dances, and concerts to celebrate their Irish heritage and to highlight the important influence that Irish immigrants have had in the United States. The proceeds of these events fund the group’s charitable donations.

Other notable mentions

Other notable mentions about the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Credit: commonswikimedia.org

Hibernian Halls: There are Divisions and Hibernian Halls all over the US that welcome new immigrants. Here, the missions and interests of the Irish are preserved and celebrated.

The Famine: The Ancient Order of Hibernians was founded just before the outbreak of the Famine which saw thousands of Irish citizens fleeing their native land for the United States.

Charity work: The many divisions around the country support local charities as well as sending funds to higher levels for support of state, national, and international charities.

Your questions answered about the Ancient Order of Hibernians

In this section, we answer some of our readers’ most frequently asked questions as well as those that appear often in online searches.

Why is Ireland called Hibernia?

Hibernia is the Classical Latin name for Ireland and was taken from Ancient Greek geographical records. Scholars believe that the name meant ‘abundant land’.

What are the requirements to join the Ancient Order of Hibernians?

Prospective members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians must be male, Catholic, and Irish or of Irish descent.

What is the motto of the Ancient Order of Hibernians?

The motto of the Ancient Order of Hibernians is, “Friendship, unity, and Christian charity”.

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