|The Ancient Order of Hibernians official shield.|
In 1835 the New York neighborhood known as Five Points centered on intersection created by Orange Street, now Baxter Street; Cross Street, now Mosco Street, and Anthony Street, now Worth Street which ran northwest direction, dividing one of the four corners into two triangular blocks was already, after London’s East End, the most densely populated, disease ridden, and squalid slum in the Western World. Built on reclaimed land where the Lenape Indians once had a fishing village, around 1811, it had begun to sink back into the mire and was plagued by disease carrying yellow fever mosquitoes and cholera breeding drinking water polluted by human waste. Middle class residents fled the area within a few years leaving it to the most despised inhabitants of the city including a remnant of the Lenape, known locally as the Canarcies, Blacks including many that had been freed in the culmination of New York States gradual emancipation in 1827, and beginning about the same time the first wave of immigration by impoverished displaced Irish Catholic tenant farmers.
A few years later Charles Dickens described Five Points in his book American Notes:
What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies behind this tottering flight of steps? Let us go on again, and plunge into the Five Points....
This is the place; these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the world over....
Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken forays. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright instead of going on all fours, and why they talk instead of grunting?
It was an uneasily integrated community with the Blacks and Irish often brawling in the streets while consorting in the taverns and beer halls and sometimes even cohabitating. The two groups were united mainly in needing to defend themselves from the depredations of Native Protestant gangs. In 1835 the Nativists had rampaged through the neighborhood during the Anti-abolitionist riots burning Black homes and churches and murdering any they found on the streets. Organized politically as the Know Nothings the same goons rose to local political power on an anti-Catholic and anti-Immigrant platform and its gang member supporters attacked Catholic Churches, Schools, and businesses.
|The poverty stricken Black and Irish neighborhood of Five Points in New York City in 1827 by painter George Catlin, later famous for his authentic American Indian paintings.|
On May 4, 1835 a number of disgruntled Irishmen met at nearby St. James Church to devise a plan to defend their community. They had a model—the Hibernians, a super-secret society many had belonged to in the Ould Sod which defended Catholics from the persecutions of the English and the local Protestant elites by violence if need be. They named their new organization in the States The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) subservient to the secret societies in Ireland. They even got the organization a New York State charter, making it official, something that the outlawed organization in Ireland could never be. Despite this overt step, they took pains to make the proceeding and activities of their new organization secret from prying eyes.
The origins of the Hibernians in Ireland are shrouded in mystery and myth. The AOH itself traces the linage to Rory O’Moore, a Catholic nobleman who organized secret Defenders against the Earl of Essex Thomas Radcliffe, famed as the lover of Queen Elizabeth I, who was made Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1562. Essex prohibited all monks and priests from either eating or sleeping in Dublin, ordered the head of each family to attend Protestant services every Sunday under the penalty of a fine, and perhaps worst confiscated the property of Catholic nobles.
First off, the Hibernians get it wrong, it was not Rory O’Moore a/k/a Sir Roger Moore who was born about 1600 but his uncle, the clan chief Ruairí Óg Ó Mórdha, King of Laois that waged war on Essex. Rory came along two generations later and was one of the four organizer of the Rebellions of 1641, a failed coup d’état by the ancient Catholic nobility against authorities at Dublin Castle then fought a prolonged Irish Confederate Wars which took back much of the country outside of Dublin. Then he resisted the invasion by Oliver Cromwell but ultimately was crushed and died in hiding or exile.
It is doubtful that there was any direct organizational connection between the followers of either Ruairí Óg Ó Mórdha or Rory O’Moore and the later Hibernians except by way of inspiration for Catholic resistance.
|18th Century Whiteboys, a secret society of Irish tenant farmers, attack a landlord's agent in this British illlustration. The Whiteboys were among the inspirations for the establishment of the Hibernians.|
In the 18th Century for instance rural Catholic tenant farmers organized secret Whiteboy societies to protest rack-rents, tithe collection, evictions and other oppressive acts by night raids on landlords, burning barns and estates, assaults, and assassinations. The name derived from the white peasant smocks many of the night raiders wore. At the time the authorities called them Levelers and they called themselves by different names including Queen Sive Oultagh’s children, Fairies, or followers of Sheila Meskill. There were three outbreaks of Whiteboy violence—1761–64; 1770–76; and 1784–86 with low level activity in between. Each outbreak was ruthlessly and violently suppressed leaving parts of some counties wastelands. Some of the surviving Whiteboys rallied to the United Irishmen uprising and the small French invasion force dispatched by Napoleon in 1798. But others were deeply distrustful of the United Irishmen which was largely led by liberal Dissenters.
The spirit of the Whiteboys, if not their organization, was revived around 1813 by the Ribbonmen, an agrarian Catholic secret society formed to prevent landlords from changing or evicting their tenants. The also attacked tithe and process servers. Strongest in Ulster, they became deadly enemies of the Protestant Orange Order and the two groups often fought pitched battles. The Ribbonmen were named for the bits of green ribbon they wore in the button holes but they called their organization the Fraternal Society, the Patriotic Association, or the Sons of the Shamrock. It was to the secret leadership of these societies that the new American AOH pledged their allegiance in 1835.
The AOH grew rapidly despite the secrecy with which it surrounded itself. In New York City they organized patrols armed with clubs and blackthorn sticks to defend Catholics, particularly their Churches and Priests from assaults by Nativist gangs. More importantly, they began organizing politically and within a few years wrestled control of the 6th Ward whose heart was Five Points from the Nativist Tammany Wigwam and elected Irish Catholics to local office—the first time this kind of political success was had by the Irish in this country and a model in embryo for the political machines they would come to command in many cities.
A second locus of growth in the early years was at Pottsville, Pennsylvania in the heart of the state’s anthracite coal region where Irish miners had been recruited to work the pits. It was extremely dangerous hard work. Fourteen hour days, six days a week were standard. Pit operators often failed to meet payrolls and levied fines for minor offensives and made employees pay rent on tools and equipment. Trade unions were in their infancy and manual laborers like coal miners, especially Irishmen, were not considered intelligent enough manage their own affairs. A secret society, like those of tenant farmers in the old country, seemed like the natural way for the miners to organize to protect themselves. So the Hibernians spread over the coal fields.
After the Civil War the Hibernians were deeply established over the anthracite district. By then they were operating semi-openly as an ethnic benevolent society, a type of organization that spread widely in the second half of the 19th Century which, among other things, raised money for the many widows and orphans caused by frequent mine accidents, fires, and shaft collapses. The men could assemble for meetings—invariably on Sundays after Mass, the only time of the week they were not working—without attracting too much attention. But what went on in those meetings was an oath sealed secret.
Conditions in the mines had grown worse under the insatiable demand for fuel for the emerging steel industry, other heavy industry, and the ever expanding network of railroads knitting the country together. New mines opened up regularly. Ownership in many cases passed form individual entrepreneurs to corporations and consortiums tied to the steel industry meaning that the real bosses were far away and seldom seen. Demand for increased production meant corners were cut to already scant safety procedures including inadequately timbering the shafts and careless handling of black powder explosives led to ever more dangerous working conditions. To work the mines the bosses turned increasingly to children for jobs away from the mine face, especially as breaker boys. By 1870 nearly a third of all workers in the district were boys 16 years of age and under, numbering more than 10,000.
Worst of all from the perspective of the Irish miners, who were relatively established in the district, was the importation of non-English speaking immigrants, especially Italians and Slavs to work the mines. Not only were these newcomers considered dangerous to work alongside because they could not speak English and were un-instructed in even rudimentary safety practices, but they were paid even less, driving down wages across the district. Suddenly the Irish were in the same boat as their old Know Nothing and nativist enemies and they behaved in much the same way to the new comers.
Some early attempts at unionizing the field began in 1869 with the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA) after a particularly gruesome Avondale mine disaster took the lives of 110 miners—just some of 566 miners had been killed and 1,655 maimed in Schuylkill County alone in a seven year period. The attempt to unionize was met by violent repression by the bosses, including almost daily beating of suspected members as well as a number of ambush shootings. All of this intensified after the Panic of 1873 brought rounds of wage cuts across the district.
The time was ripe for the Molly McGuires. Historians are divided three ways concerning the Mollies—that they and the Hibernians were virtually one and the same, that the Mollies simply took advantage of the Hibernian meetings to infiltrate the organization and use its secrecy to plan their operations, or finally that there never was a real organization of Mollies at all except for possibly individual or small groups of men inspired the legend to act on their own against their immediate exploiters. Only those who are apologists for the employers’ version of history, including some modern Libertarians maintain that the Mollies and Hibernians were the same organization. The second viewpoint is the most widely held and the third, that the Mollies did not really exist at all, is held by a number of labor historians.
Back in Ireland secret groups identifying themselves as Molly McGuires began to emerge during the Potato Famine. They were even more rural, local, and Gaelic than the previous Ribbonmen. Local Molly leaders were reported to have sometimes dressed as women as cover for their attacks. Membership and/or activity in the Mollies against the landlords and abusive merchants may—or may not—have coincided with the shadowy Irish Hibernians to whom the AHO owed fealty.
At any rate a rash of counter-violence including the murders of pit bosses, foremen, and suspected spies, as well as sabotage of the mine shafts and heads with the placement of black powder bombs was soon being blamed on the Molly McGuires and the AOH lodges were suspected to be the center of a vast conspiracy.
In 1873 Franklin B. Gowen, the President of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company and the wealthiest anthracite coal mine owner in the world, hired Allan Pinkerton’s detective service to deal with the supposed Mollies. But his real target was the WBA, which had grown to claim a membership of thirty thousand—85% percent of Pennsylvania’s anthracite miners and a real threat to mine owners profits. The leadership of the WBA was not Irish, but English Lancastershire miners who were adamantly opposed to violence and known to be trying to crack down on the acts credited to the Mollies. Pinkerton was instructed to gather evidence that would tie the WBA and its leadership, as well as the AOH. Out of 450 Hibernians in Schuylkill County, 400 were found to be union members.
In 1874 Pinkerton assigned one of his top agents, 3o year old James McParland who was born in County Armagh to infiltrate the AOH. Working as a miner under the name of James McKenna McParland seemed to have no trouble infiltrating the Hibernians and gaining the trust of leading members. He sent detailed daily reports to his employer. McParland showed a basic ignorance of the history of the AOH when he wrote that the lodge was created by the Mollies as a cover for their activities, despite the fact that it had been active for decades before the violence attributed to the Mollies ever began. He also complained in his reports that he was making little progress in tying the Hibernians to the Mollies. He was, however, readily able to identify a number of union members.
In response to a general 20% wage cut announced by Gowen’s Schuylkill Coal Exchange combination of mine operators, the WBA went out on strike on January 1, 1875. It would be a long strike, punctuated by violence of the notorious Pennsylvania Coal and Iron Police, the Pennsylvania Militia, and vigilantes on one hand and retaliation attributed to the Mollies on the other.
Pinkerton either turned over or allowed employees of Gowen to have access to the identity of the union members uncovered by McParland. He also recommended to Gowen that vigilantes be formed to attack known unionists, supposedly in revenge for Molly attacks. A union leader and AOH member Edward Coyle, was murdered in March. Another member of the AOH was shot and killed by the Modocs, a Welsh gang operating led by a mine superintendent. Another mine boss, Patrick Vary, fired into a group of miners and, according to the later boast by Gowen, as the miners “fled they left a long trail of blood behind them”. At Tuscarora, a meeting of miners was attacked and one miner was killed and several others wounded.
Then on December 10, 1875, three men and two women were attacked in their home by masked men. One of the men and one of the women, the wife of a miner, were killed. The other two men were able to escape with wounds, although McParland would later charge that they were hunted down and killed by the Coal and Iron Police. The vigilante raid outraged McParland who had no objection to the assassination of union men but was furious that his reports had been used to murder a woman who he considered innocent. He angrily submitted his resignation, but was enticed to stay with promises that his notes would no longer be turned over to vigilantes. His scruples salved, McParland withdrew his resignation—and Gowen continued to turn over the names of union members he identified to the vigilantes.
First Lt. Frank Wenrich, of the Militia , was eventually arrested as the leader of the vigilante attackers, but released on bail and never tried.
Violence and retaliation continued on both sides while Union leaders appealed for calm and tried to arrange arbitration. In May of 1875 28 national and local union leaders were arrested. They were all convicted at trial for conspiring to raise wages depressing the price of a vendible commodity and sentenced to a year in jail. With the WBA leadership in jail, the strike struggled on loosing strength day by day, but violence on all sides escalated, especially since the strongest voices for peace on labor’s side had been effectively silenced.
After six months with their families starving the strike and union was broken. The men returned to work accepting the 20% pay cut and many were black balled from ever working in the mines again. The end of the strike, however, did not end the violence with both vigilantes and alleged Mollies committing revenge murders well into 1876.
|Six alleged Molly McGuires are led to the scaffold in 1877, convicted on evidence of the Pinkerton spy James McParland|
McParland now announced he had at last been able to identify suspects in several planned or executed murders and bombings. In the end several men went to trial on murder or attempted murder charges based on McParland’s reports and testimony beginning in January 1876. Mine boss Gowen got himself named as special prosecutor in the case. In all ten men were convicted and sentenced to hang. One man, Jimmy Kerrigan, the brother-in-law of McParland’s fiancé, was acquitted in a second trial after an initial mistrial. On June 22, 1877 the ten men were hanged in two batches, six at the prison at Pottsville, and four at Mauch Chunk, Carbon County.
Another ten men were convicted and hanged on evidence not from McParland and a last accused Mollie was tried and hung in 1878. All of the dead were identified as Hibernians and most as union members.
The Hibernians, union, and the Mollies, if they existed were all shattered. The nation’s leadership of the AOH far from supporting their accused brothers, denounced them and officially dissolved the “guilty” lodges and expelled all of the members in an attempt to mollify public anger.
The Hibernians remained active in both the United States and Ireland, however. Increasingly tied to the Church, they became the extremely conservative wing of the Irish Nationalist Movement. In Ireland it still did not have an official form or identity. Many of its leaders were supporters of Charles Stewart Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party. They were the bitter enemies of the more secular Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) just as the AOH in America opposed the IRB’s allies here, the Fenian Brotherhood.
|An Ancient Order of Hibernian gathering at Hinkle Town, Iowa circa 1880.|
In the U.S. the Hibernians split in 1884 between a minority that supported a continued allegiance to the Board of Erin consisting exclusively of Hibernians in Ireland and Britain and a much larger group that wanted American elected officers. The majority became the Ancient Order of Hibernians of America and the smaller group called itself Ancient Order of Hibernians, Board of Erin. By 1897 the Board of Erin group had only 40,000 members in pockets around New York city and in Illinois while the AOHA boasted 120,000 in every state. In addition the AOHA chartered a ladies auxiliary, The Daughters of Erin in 1894 that had more than 20,000 members. The two groups re-united in 1898 under the American leadership but expressing a special relationship with Hibernians in Ireland.
The Irish Hibernians finally got legal status in the 1890’s under the leadership by Joseph Devlin of Belfast. Heavily concentrated in Ulster, now also officially the Ancient Order of Hibernians spent much of its time challenging the Orange Order and contesting its annual Twelfth of June Marches commemorating the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne. That single mindedness proved very popular in Ulster where membership blossomed from 9,000 members at the turn of the century to 64,000 in 1909. They also began to make inroads elsewhere in Ireland, but their extreme sectarianism was views by many in the South as an impediment to retaining the support Protestant dissenters and even making inroads among the Anglo-Irish of the Church of Ireland.
The Hibernians were among the first to openly recruit and train an armed militia of their own. They generally opposed the raising of Irish regiments and troops for World War I and entered a somewhat shaky alliance with the emerging Irish Volunteers. They bitterly opposed the James Connolly’s socialist and labor Irish Citizen Army. None the less one company of Hibernian Rifles joined the Volunteers and Citizen Army in the 1916 Easter Rebellion.
During the War of Independence many Hibernians joined the Irish Republican Army but in the Civil War the followed supported the government and Treaty Forces. Its influence waned outside of Ulster, and even on its home ground. By the 1930’s they were drifting to fascism and supplied troops to the Irish Brigade fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
In Ulster the Hibernians had long sponsored their own proactive parades to taunt the Orangemen. At the beginning of the Troubles in 1968 they voluntarily called off their annual marches in the interest of peace, but resumed them in 1975 as the organization became increasing identified and allied with the nationalist Provisional IRA.
Today only a few thousand strong its mostly elderly members continue to confront their ancient enemies yearly.
In the United States the AOHA remained active, although organizations more directly connected to arming and supplying the IRA. In 1965 they reported 181,000 nationwide. Like all fraternal organizations in this country, membership dropped precipitously over the next few years as elderly members died with no youthful replacements in sight. Less than 10,000 remained when a revival of sorts began in Montana with the establishment of the vigorous Thomas Francis Meagher Division No. 1, named for the Civil War General, Irish Brigade, and Montana Territorial Govern in Helena, in 1982, Within a couple of years six more Montana towns formed units. Other new divisions have been founded in California.