The unwritten history of American Hibernianism by Kerron Ó Luain

AOH members Kilkenny, Minnesota 1910-1915

Despite being, at the turn of the twentieth century, the largest Irish nationalist organisation in the world, and to this day counting tens of thousands of members in the US, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) have not received any book-length academic treatment to date. A recent spell spent on a Fulbright Scholarship in the US spurred me to going some way towards rectifying this.

Using nineteenth-century American newspapers, held mainly in the digital repositories of the Library of Congress, Chronicling America, I was able to piece together the history of US Hibernianism from its emergence in the 1850s until its first major public rift in 1884. The resulting article, published in the current instalment of Social History, focusses on the class tensions within this ‘broad church’ nationalist movement.

Irish origins

Any interpretation of Hibernianism, either in the US, or in the other places to which it spread such as Britain, Canada and Australia, invariably needs to get to grips with its Irish origins. Hibernianism emerged from a movement known to the British authorities in Ireland as Ribbonism and it retained many of the characteristics of the Ribbon societies for a long time.

A sketch of Ribbonmen drinking whiskey at a meeting in a barn on the marquis of Bath’s estate in County Monaghan in 1851, from William Steuart Trench’s Realities of Irish life, London, 1868.

In the pre-Famine era, Ribbonism functioned not only as a physical deterrent to Orangeism by clashing with its processions, but also as a primitive trade union for an array of small tradesmen, particularly publicans, in urban Dublin, Belfast and across Ulster and north Leinster. In rural areas, Ribbon lodges operated as associational fulcrums for young men from the small farming and agricultural labouring classes.

Contrary to conventional historical wisdom, these rustic Ribbon societies were not merely another form of the anti-landlord agrarian combinations so well known to contemporaries and so well studied by later historians. [1] Instead, they operated as economic protectionist clubs which sometimes regulated land, not for the betterment of the peasantry in general, but for the gain of their own membership specifically.

This Catholic fraternalism and self-interest defined Ribbonism and then Hibernianism wherever it manifested, be it in the countryside of Ireland or in the mining, manufacture or docking sectors of America. In the US, the transition from the more shadowy and wary Ribbonism to a more public and assertive Hibernianism was, in the early 1850s, personified by the figure of James Saunders. A publican, butcher, and at one point a revenue officer, Saunders was the AOH’s first National Delegate. But prior to that, he had acted as president of a Ribbon society entitled the Friendly Sons of Erin, which in 1850 changed its title to the Ancient Friendly Sons of Erin. The following year, in 1851, the formal adoption of the title Ancient Order of Hibernians was first reliably recorded. [2]

Class and gender

The bulk of rank-and-file Hibernianism in the US was urban working class due to settlement patterns among the broader Irish American community. The New York Times, for example, reported that an assembly of AOH Division No.3 in Emmet Hall, West Thirteenth Street, in 1871, was held ‘behind a bar-room, and was filled with men entirely of the lower order of Irish’. [3] A public statement issued by AOH leaders in January 1876, carried in Patrick Ford’s Irish World newspaper, also recorded how ‘the majority of our people belong to the working classes’. [4]

These working-class men were led by leaders who occupied slightly higher positions on the social hierarchy. Table 1, which shows the occupations of some of the presidents who led their AOH divisions at a New York St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1862, bears out this finding for the early period, with a saloon keeper, news agent and labourer listed as local leaders.

Meanwhile, the leadership at a national level contained men of a slightly higher rank again, even in cases where they were first generation Irish immigrants, as demonstrated by Table 2. A report on the national convention held in Boston in the summer of 1878 by The Daily Globe noted the attendance of ‘lawyers, doctors, senators, colonels, sheriffs etc’.

With roots in Irish Ribbon conspiratorial, fraternal and public house-based networks it is unsurprising that women were not involved in any substantial way in the AOH organisation in the US during the years 1853-1889. Later on, a women’s support organisation for Hibernianism came into existence. Initially titled the Daughters of Erin, the Ladies Auxiliary AOH was founded in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1894 and adopted the latter title in 1906.

Countering Orangeism and nativism

In the 1850s, Hibernianism emerged against a backdrop of a hostile anti-Catholic nativism and it was the AOH’s militant nationalist and staunch anti-Orange Ribbon pedigree which separated it from the more ‘benevolent’ Irish societies. From the 1840s, self-styled nativist groupings such as the Native American Party, or the Know Nothings, issued polemics against Catholics and their supporters had been laying siege to Irish Catholic neighbourhoods and churches. Hibernians responded defiantly by marching annually on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March.

A dual loyalty, characteristic not just of the AOH but of Irish America more widely, was also discernible. Hibernians could express affinity with their fatherland through celebrations on Catholic feast days and at church openings, while at the same time march on the Fourth of July to prove their allegiance to their adopted homeland. In 1853, one such parade in New York was attacked by Orangemen at Abingdon Square, leading to a particularly violent riot. The New York Herald of the following day reported that several hundred Hibernians armed with cart rungs, sticks and paving stones went on to clash with the police, leading to forty arrests.

The Orange threat raised its head once more in New York in the early 1870s, inciting Irish Catholics to counter-mobilisation, and ultimately culminating in violent riots. In August 1870, a planned parade by the Orange Order saw large numbers of AOH members in Manhattan, and surrounding areas such as Brooklyn and Jersey City, gather at the Hibernian Hall on Prince Street, evidently in anticipation of an attack.

These tensions were as much a relocation of old sectarian hostilities as they were a specific conflict that had emerged between Catholics and Protestants in New York and its environs since the 1850s. Protestant nativism railed against the growth of the Catholic Church, the political power of Catholics as embodied in the Democratic political machine at Tammany Hall, and the increasing presence of Irish nationalism in the region.

The Orange Riots of 12 July 1871 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, 1871 July 29

The following year, 1871, the planned parade by Orangemen on 12 July also provoked the formation of AOH men into a group styling themselves Hibernian National Volunteers. On both occasions, however, the AOH played no organisational role in the actual riots, despite their posturing in the preceding days. What had changed between 1853 and 1871?

The quest for respectability

Simply put; the AOH leadership had sought to become respectable and ingratiate their organisation with the Catholic Church and mainstream American society. This, however, did not mean that the violent Ribbonite tendencies of its base were suddenly everywhere suppressed. Clashes with Orangemen and police were still a feature of Hibernianism at this juncture, as was involvement in intimidatory practices in employment, territorial disputes with common criminal gangs, and other illegal activities.

Paradoxically, though much of the AOH leadership denounced the violent activities of its rank and file in the US, some among them encouraged rebellion in Ireland against British rule. Hibernianism had offered moral and financial support to Fenianism in the home country from the 1860s. Fenianism, and later Clan na Gael during the 1870s, offered working-class Hibernians in the US an outlet for their political and social frustrations. Both movements also provided an opportunity for Hibernians to maintain their connection to Ireland, and, indeed, to play a role in setting to right the injustice of their exile. Nevertheless, tensions arose within Hibernianism over whether to fully associate with the Fenian/Clan strand as some leaders thought this might jeopardise their moves towards respectability.

The Strike in the Coal Mines – Meeting of Molly Maguires. From Harper’s Weekly, January 31, 1874

But it was in Pennsylvania where the AOH nearly came undone in this quest for acceptance by mainstream society. In the anthracite coal mining regions the Molly Maguires emerged from the lodges of the Hibernian movement. The Mollies launched a campaign of violence and intimidation against unscrupulous mine owners in the mode that Irish Ribbonmen had against those who transgressed the land code, deploying threatening letters, assault and assassination. In response, the AOH leadership, at the Pennsylvania State Convention of 1876 ‘cut off’ several counties in the state where it believed Molly Maguireism had ‘infested’ Hibernianism. The National Convention of 1877 passed strident resolutions condemning the assassinations and, in 1878, the constitution of the AOH was amended in response to the turmoil within the order created by the violence. The AOH’s Pennsylvania State Convention held in Pittsburgh the same year passed a resolution relating to the unrest, condemning any:

member who takes part in any organization, the objects of which can antagonize the peace and good order of this glorious Commonwealth. As loyal citizens of the United States, we propose to put down our feet on any semblance of communism. [5]

The move toward respectability and endorsement by the Catholic Church paid off for Hibernian leaders when the steady expansion of Hibernianism is considered. At the National Convention of one AOH faction, the AOH of America, in 1882, in Chicago, The Irishman could report that there were 160 delegates and 10,000 members present and that ‘the Order numbers considerably over 50,000 members and owns property valued at $264,567.66’. [6]

Ironically, and despite the efforts of the leadership to cultivate a wholesome public image, factionalism was rife among Hibernianism during this period, especially among its upper echelons, as several major disputes testify. The most serious of these occurred in 1884 due to an imbalance in power between New York and the rest of the US, squabbles over finances and status within the organisation, and the issue of whether to accept second generation Irish into their ranks. This discord resulted in the emergence of two factions. The AOH-Board of Erin, who opposed the suggestion, were confined mainly to the New York area and maintained closer ties with the organisation in Ireland and Britain. The AOH of America, who advocated for the proposal, represented the remainder of the US and some lodges in New York. [7]


The working-class rank and file of Hibernianism viewed the world differently to those at the apex of the AOH hierarchy, who were usually drawn from a slightly better off section of society than those they led. Hibernianism was a broad movement forged together by a common ethno-religious bond. It therefore incorporated different sections of the working, lower middle and middle classes who often exhibited different agendas and responded differently to external threats such as Orangeism and internal pressures from elements such as Fenianism.

Despite these internal class contradictions, Hibernianism continued to grow in its formative period during the second half of the nineteenth century in America. It was therefore well placed to seize the opportunities presented by the ‘golden age’ of ethnic societies at the turn of the twentieth century. The scholarship to date on this vast movement has only begun to scratch the surface and answer some of the questions around class, politics, culture, region and transnationalism that Hibernianism elicits.


Kerron’s research interest lies in popular collective action and activism in Ireland during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is particularly interested in how the working class of colonised countries – the subaltern – organised themselves to resist imperialism of the economic, political and cultural varieties. Much of the research for this blog and accompanying article in Social History was undertaken while on a Fulbright Scholarship in Villanova University, PA, in 2018-2019.


[1] Jennifer Kelly, ‘An outward looking community?: Ribbonism and popular mobilisation in Co. Leitrim 1836-1848’ (PhD thesis, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, 2005), 18, 49, 86, 212

[2] John T. Ridge, Erin’s Sons in America: The Ancient Order of Hibernians (New York, 1986), 13.

[3] The New York Times, 11 July 1871.

[4] Irish World article carried in the Irish American 24 Jan. 1876.

[5] The Saint Paul Globe, 2 June 1878, 1.

[6] Report from The Irishman, cited in John O’Dea, History of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Ladies’ Auxiliary, vol ii (2nd edn., Notre Dame, n/d), 1062-3.

[7] Timothy J. Meagher, ‘Irish America without Ireland: Irish-American relations with Ireland in the twentieth century’ in Niall Whelehan (ed), Transnational perspectives on modern Irish history (New York, 2015), p. 197.