The Reformation that swept Europe in the 16th century was marked by conflicts over the practice of religion. Elizabeth I declared the Church of England the State religion, and although she considered Ireland part of her state, the Irish did not. As a result, Ireland became a battlefield in a campaign to reduce Catholic power. The persistence with which the Irish clung to their religion drove the Crown to extremes in repression as Penal Laws disenfranchised the Irish from the political, social, and economic life of their own country. With their religion outlawed, they became an underground society practicing in secret.
Not surprisingly, secret societies of purpose were formed to protect the values under attack; groups with names like Whiteboys, Defenders and Ribbonmen were identified with attacks on English landlords and protection of the Catholic clergy as far back as 1565. As time and government prevailed, societies were suppressed and reorganized under new names. The secret way in which they operated left few records and a detailed history of their times may never be written. What history does tell us, however, is that oppression forced many Irish to flee to other lands and the instinct for secret societies, which had developed in Ireland, went with them. The Ribbon Organization, which was the latest in the long line of secret societies, exported branches to the Irish in new lands under such names as the Hibernian Sick and Funeral Society, the St. Patrick’s Fraternal Society, the Hibernian Benevolent Society and others. In the ethnic slums of the lands to which they fled, the immigrant Irish formed these and other fraternal societies into associations to promote the welfare of members and their families.
As the Irish population grew in America, a period of intolerance was launched that began with social segregation, followed with discrimination in hiring and reached its climax in nativist gangs bent on violence. In 1806, an anti-Catholic mob attacked St. Peters Church in lower Manhattan. They were held off by members of the Irish community who formed a guard around the building, and led to two days of rioting. St. Mary’s Church in New York was burned to the ground in 1831; in 1832, 57 Irish railroad workers suffering from Cholera near Malvern, PA were attacked, refused medical attention, died and were dumped in an unmarked grave; in 1834, an Ursaline Convent in Massachusetts was torched; and in 1834 and 35, nativist gangs attacked the Irish in the Five Points neighborhood of New York resulting in street brawls that lasted for days. The Irish fraternal societies soon found that a militant dimension was necessary to defend against escalating intolerance.
Then, in 1836, according to The Miner’s Journal newspaper in Pennsylvania’s Schuykill County coalfield region and other verified sources, a contingent of miners from a group called the Hibernian Benevolent Society traveled to New York’s St Patrick’s Day parade. While there they met with a group of New York activists from the St. Patrick’s Fraternal Society. No minutes of the meeting exist, but with nativist activity becoming a national threat, it’s not difficult to imagine them seeking to coalesce several societies into one major defensive organization. Historian John O’Dea in his History of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (1923) records that these men, who had been Ribbonmen in Ireland, discussed the advantage of forming an American version of that organization. Owing to the secret nature of the Ribbon society, there were no written rules of the association, but they wrote to individual groups seeking advice and support. The response they received was put into the form of a charter which has long been lost, although the words remain. In several early versions of the AOH history, reference is made to the founding of its first Division at New York’s St James Church on May 4, 1836—less than two months after the historic meeting of the New York and Pennsylvania activists. Another Division was formed at the same time in the coal-fields of Pennsylvania. At about 1838, this coalition took the name The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH).
Nativist or Know Nothing activities spread across the country. In 1854, construction of the Washington Monument was halted when nativists stole and destroyed a granite block donated to the project by Pope Pius IX since they would tolerate no Catholic stone in that icon to America’s first president. The following year, a nativist attack on an Irish neighborhood in Louisville, KY caused 22 deaths and considerable arson and looting. Although the secrecy surrounding the early operation of the AOH makes their reaction to such attacks difficult to define, it is not unlikely that those who had been Ribbonmen in Ireland called on their collective experience and dispensed home-grown justice. Soon, other societies like the Hibernian Friendship Society in Arlington, Virginia, founded in 1831, joined the growing union of Irish societies known as the AOH. As nativist bigotry spread across America, so too did the AOH. True to their purpose, they provided social welfare benefits to members and stood guard to defend Church property. After their formation, actual attacks were few, but the long, cold nights of vigil were many. At about this time, a group in Ireland adopted the name Ancient Order of Hibernians and the organization now had Irish links. Co. Cavan Museum curator and historian, Eugene Markey, devoted many years to dating the origin of the AOH in Ireland, but finding nothing to predate 1836, concluded that the AOH was, in fact, an American organization that had been founded on ancient Irish principles. It was organized with the intent of defending Irish values under attack, it claimed continuity of purpose unbroken back to the early Irish secret guardians of Irish heritage in 1565. Thus, in early nineteenth century America, the AOH, became the newest link in the evolution of those ancient societies.