WHO ARE WE?
by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
Recent revelations of a few AOH members dismissing Irish history as unimportant and even Divisions without an active historian, leads us to reflect on who we really are. We are the Irish who chose to be members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a choice that defines us. The AOH was created to defend a heritage born on a tiny island in the western ocean with the first pre-Celtic inhabitants whose engineering skill produced Newgrange, the oldest still standing man-made structure on the planet, and hundreds just like it – all astronomically aligned. It grew with those who mined and smelted tin with copper to create Bronze and produced artistic treasures so intricate they cannot be duplicated today. It was strengthened by Celtic warriors who discovered iron and were the first use it to rim their chariot wheels. And it was enhanced and formalized by the Christian gospel of St. Patrick and the many missionaries he inspired to make the tiny island renowned throughout the known world as the Isle of Saints and Scholars.
However, that valued heritage was despised by powerful forces that came across the sea from England. As strangers gradually took control of the land, they tried to erase that heritage. They forbid its practice by legislation like the Statutes of Kilkenny and Penal Laws, but the Irish secretly held on to what had been passed to them; for to deny their heritage would have been to deny their ancestors. When legislation failed, brute force was unleashed from Cromwell to William of Orange. Again they failed! And when the Irish fought the Crown to a stalemate and a treaty resulted, perfidious Albion broke trust as with the broken Treaty of Limerick and again assaulted the heritage so boldly defended. When the ancient heritage could not be erased, it became expedient to erase those who practiced it and that opportunity came with a fungus on the potato crop in 1845. The Irish had been forced to rely on that crop as a result of laws enacted by a landlord-dominated Westminster Parliament. There had been earlier failures, but an Irish Parliament eased its impact by thoughtful action. However, Britain eliminated that Irish Parliament 44 years earlier and this time the Irish were at the mercy of Westminster. Then followed the genocidal horror known as An Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger – when starving Irish tenants watched the abundant produce of their country taken under guard to the seaports to be exported for profit while their wives and children cried with hunger. The native Irish were then left with three choices: first, to accept the stranger’s ways and laws; second, to flee their beloved island; and third, to starve. A few did the first, millions did the second and millions more unwillingly did the third!
Through all the years of discord, societies had been formed to protect the values under attack. From the Whiteboys, who fought landlords in white shirts to identify each other on midnight raids, to the Ribbonmen, wore a special ribbon to show their similar goal – protection of a heritage and retribution to those who dared to destroy it. When the millions of Irish refugees who were forced to flee their homes landed in America, they were shocked to find the same bigotry awaiting them in the former British colony. It was manifested by nativists who awakened memories of former violence in riots against them and their church for no other reason than who they were! Repressive legislation similar to that which they faced in Ireland was proposed by nativists of the Native American Party in local and national governments.
Those immigrant Irish who had joined together in local benevolent fraternal societies, not surprisingly assumed the responsibility of protecting the values under attack and became the same type of secret societies that had protected them in Ireland. Then in 1836, the Ribbon Society in Ireland authorized branches of their society among former Ribbon emigrants in New York and Pennsylvania. By 1851, many more merged with the growing number of societies for the same protection of a centuries-old heritage. By that time nativists had replaced the British military as adversaries and employers had replaced landlords as antagonists. The societies morphed into a uniquely American national organization and thus was born, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Over the years, violence diminished but the bigotry continues in derogatory T-shirts and greeting cards, twisted anglicized versions of Irish history taught in American schools and the disregard of Irish contributions to America and the world. The attacks on our heritage continue and we, as inheritors of the ancient traditions for which our forefathers fought and suffered, are its modern defenders. That is why the Ancient Order of Hibernians exists, that is the reason its members were invited to join and that is what defines us!