Joe Byrne and the Ancient Order of Hibernians

Joe Byrne arriving at JFK airport. (L to R) Congressman Eliot Engel, Eileen Byrne, Joe Byrne, Matt Reilly (member of the Fort Worth Five), Moira Reilly and Mairead Byrne is out in front.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians was formed in New York City in 1836 for many reasons, one in particular was to protect young Irish men who had recently immigrated.  While Joe Byrne was not considered by many to be “new” to America, his unjust arrest was enough for all who belonged to the AOH/LAOH to stand up and fight for him.

Early Friday morning, on July 28th, 2006, Joe and his family were met by 20 Armed U.S. Marshals at their home.  Joe’s daughter, Mairead, then three years-old, was the first to see these men.  Joe was arrested and brought to Valhalla, were he was locked up until his release on Friday, September 8th, 2006.  On that Friday morning, no one knew why Joe had been arrested.  The U.S. Marshals told his wife, Eileen, that Joe would be brought before a judge in White Plains at 10:00am.  It was there that they learned that Ireland had asked the United States Government to honor an extradition request of one Joseph Simon Byrne.

In 1996 and early 1997, in Dundalk, County Louth, Joe had been picked up for questioning regarding a robbery. Joe answered the Gardai’s questions and was released on his own recognizance.  Later in 1997, Joe went back to Gardai Station and informed them he planned on moving to America.  “Any problems?” he asked, “none” replied the Gardai.  In 2001, Joe had settled in Pearl River with his future wife when he needed to renew his Irish passport.  This was done in the Irish Embassy and his passport was mailed back to his home in Pearl River.  In 2004, Joe applied for his Green Card.  He reported on his application that he had been questioned in Dundalk Gardai Station about the robberies.  When INS asked the Irish Government about Joe’s reputation, he was issued a Certificate of Good Standing from Ireland.  Joe’s Green Card had also been sent to his address in Pearl River.

Sometime in 2005, the Irish Government issued an extradition order for Joe.  No one knows why it took the U.S. Marshals over a year to find Joe, but I will always remember a quote in the local Journal News on Saturday, July 29th – “You can run, but you can’t hide.”  I have since forgotten the name of that US Marshal, but clearly, Joe was not hiding in Pearl River.  He could be found on just about any job site, in Hibernian House, at a Division 3 meeting, Shop Rite, marching on the avenue for Rockland’s annual Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, etc…  He was truly out and about in town.

I received the first of many calls regarding Joe’s situation around 6:15am that awful Friday morning.  I immediately started making phone calls to members of AOH/LAOH Division 3 and one person actually went and woke up our local Town Councilman.  Throughout the course of the day, as the bad news travelled, I received phone calls from many AOH/LAOH members, asking what they could do to help.  I remember thinking then – if the number of phone calls was enough, Joe would be home by midnight.  Of course, it didn’t happen that way, but no member of the AOH/LAOH walked away from Joe, his family or Division 3.  As each call was answered, they were all told the same thing, reach out to your politicians and ask them to join New York State Congressman Eliot Engel in helping get Joe out of jail.

From July 2006 till February 20th, 2008, I always knew that Joe and his family could count on the AOH/LAOH to help try and put a stop to his extradition.  But on that fateful day of February 20th, 2008, word came down that then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, had signed Ireland’s request for Joe’s extradition.  On February 29th, 2008, Joe arrived back in Dundalk, County Louth.

While Joe’s fight shifted from America to Ireland, the AOH/LAOH in America never forgot about Joe and from the e-mails I received over the past 29 months, all of you kept the faith that Joe would one day come back to America.  From New York to California, Wisconsin to Texas, Maine to Arizona, Florida to Washington and everywhere in between, all of you never forgot about Joe and the injustice that was done to him and his family.  You all had one goal in mind – to reunite Joe with his family, right here in the United States of America.   One of my last e-mails to all in 2008 stated:  “While we came up short on the extradition, we know that the nobility of the Irish character is to be never broken by temporary defeat but to come back stronger and more determined than ever. “

Oh, how true those words are!  And I am proud to say that with Joe’s return to the United States on Tuesday, July 27th, 2010 (one day short of a four year nightmare), it was due in part to Congressman Eliot Engel and his belief in Joe’s innocence and every member of the AOH/LAOH.  We proved that we will never let the nobility of the Irish character be broken and we will always come back stronger and more determined than ever.  God Bless the AOH/LAOH.  I am extremely proud and humbled to be a part of this organization.  United We Stand, Divided We Fall!  Good Luck, God Bless and God Speed to one and all!  Thanks for an awesome job!