They’re Irish, they’re Catholic, and they’re proud.
But you maybe haven’t heard of them.
They’re the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, the oldest and largest Irish Catholic organizations in the United States.
Non-Irish need not apply to the orders – membership is reserved for
those who can prove that at least some Irish blood flows through their
The word ‘Hibernian’ is another word for Irishmen, taken from
‘Hibernia’, the classical Latin term for Ireland.
Members also must be practicing Catholics willing to stand up for and support the Catholic Church.
Today, the order functions similarly to other Catholic charitable
organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus, but with an Irish twist.
They support many Catholic causes such as vocations and pro-life work,
but they also promote Irish culture and education on Irish history, and
help modern-day Irish immigrants to the U.S. and support a free and
“If you had a group of us in a room you’d have twice as many opinions
as you’d have people,” Danny O’Connell, National Vice President for the
Ancient Order of Hibernians in America, told CNA.
“But the thing that pulls us all together is our culture, our music, our traditions, many of which came from the immigrants.”
Why the Ancient Order?
The orders come from a time when secret societies were in vogue, and the stakes were much higher.
After the Protestant Reformation, the English, who had conquered
Ireland, tried fiercely to convert the stubborn Irish Catholics, to
Irish Catholics soon became accustomed to “Mass rocks”,
where a priest would say Mass outside on a rock and quickly be able to
hide the altar cloth and feign a picnic if they were found out.
At this time, secret groups with names like the Whiteboys, Ribbonmen,
and Defenders supported rights for Catholics, but their first job was
to protect their clergy. Despite persecution, the Catholics clung
fiercely to their faith.
As Catholic oppression continued and crop failures struck Ireland in
the 18th and 19th centuries, the Irish began to move, and their secret
societies, now a learned defense mechanism, came with them. It was
around this time that the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Ireland and the
UK was born.
Many Irish also immigrated to the United States, with more than 1
million doing so around the time of the Irish potato famine between
1845-1852. So many sick Irish died on the trip that the boats that
brought them over began to be referred to as “coffin ships.”
“When people refer to the famine, most of the Irish see it as a
genocide,” O’Connell explained. “It was the Great Hunger. They were
exporting more food from Ireland than they are today, yet the Irish
Catholics were dying and their teeth would be stained green because the
only thing they could even try and eat was the grass. It was the British
government starving the people who weren’t allowed to eat the food on
their land except for the potatoes, and it was land that the British
stole from us.”
But despite promises of religious freedom, the Irish found that
United States was also hostile to Catholicism, under the guise of
Since colonial times, Americans had been suspect of Catholics from
all immigrant groups, suspicious that their allegiances to the Pope
would trump their loyalty to the U.S.
“Like any immigrant group, when you were new in the U.S., you were
low on the totem pole, you were the ones abused and beaten and robbed
and not given good jobs,” O’Connell said.
“And people didn’t understand Catholicism, so they would prevent you
from practicing your religion. So if you were having a Mass, they would
beat up or often kill the priest … so the Hibernians would stay outside
or wherever they were, and stand guard. Back in those days that’s what
you did, you stood outside and protected the life of your priest, and
that was the only way you could continue practicing your religion,” he
The Hibernians also helped their own to overcome discrimination when
they were looking for housing and employment. In 1894, the Daughters of
Erin, which eventually became the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians,
was founded in order to protect young Irish immigrant women in the
The Hibernians today
A strong Irish Catholic identity, forged in the overcoming of
numerous adversities, can still be felt strongly in many parts of the
United States, and is what bonds the Hibernians together today.
Marilyn Madigan, the National Treasurer for the Ladies Ancient Order
of Hibernians, said the camaraderie among the early Hibernians can still
be felt strongly in the organization today.
“It’s the best organization I’ve ever belonged to, we’re like a second family,” she said.
Madigan said one of the most important things the orders do today,
besides their Catholic charitable work, is to help undocumented Irish
immigrants in the United States, of whom there are an estimated 50,000.
Most of them entered the country legally, but are now here on overstayed visas.
Fears and anxiety are even higher among this group after the election
of President Donald Trump, who promised to crack down on illegal
“There are a lot of undocumented Irish in this country, and most of
the Irish organizations do work to try to document those Irish, so we
haven’t forgotten where we came from, we hold that country dear to our
hearts, as well as our religion,” Madigan said. In fact, the two are
really inextricably linked.
“Most of the famine Irish were Catholic, their religion was taken
away from them, they had to go to Masses behind rocks, so our Irish and
Catholic heritage is very important,” she said.
Because the orders are non-profit groups, they do not engage in any
kind of lobbying for Irish immigration, and they also declined to
comment politically on the immigration situation of other undocumented
immigrants in the United States.
A completely free and independent Ireland is another cause near and
dear to the Hibernian heart, and the group hopes to see a peaceful and
legal reunification of the country soon, though Brexit has raised some
“We’re very involved with Brexit, the fear is that we could see a
return to a hard border between the North and the Republic,” O’Connell
explained. Ireland and Northern Ireland (the six northern counties that
still belong to the U.K.) have enjoyed relatively open borders since the
1990s, to the benefit of both countries’ economies, he added.
members of the order will be travelling to Europe to voice their support
for an open border.
The diversity of causes that the order supports and the faith that undergirds it continues to tie them together, O’Connell said.
“The culture, the music, the song, that brings us all together, and
it’s kind of like with a family … and it’s driven by being Catholic.
There’s not another Irish group in the country that has that diversity,
and that’s why we’re so strong.”
But membership is waning.
The women’s and men’s orders combined have a
membership of about 80,000 in the U.S., at a generous estimate. It’s
something that has both O’Connell and Madigan concerned.
“It seems like the younger generations do not join organizations like
we have in the past,” Madigan said. “It seems like the younger
generation, while they’re proud of their heritage, they don’t join, or
they may join or not be as active.”
“We’re trying to do a better job of welcoming people who are younger than 60,” O’Connell said.
“We’re in the process of really kicking off what’s going to be a
several-year membership campaign. We’ve never really done that before,
and we realize how many people say, ‘I don’t know anything about this,
why don’t I?’”