Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we tell the story of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians.

It is the 4th of May 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I'm your guest host, Sam Leanza Ortiz.

In today's show, we're going to tell the story of America’s oldest Irish Catholic organization, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who celebrate their founding on this the 4th of May in 1836.

What is a Hibernian, you ask? The term derives from the Latin "Hibernia" for Ireland. The Ancient Order, far less ancient than the name suggests, is comprised of Irish Catholic men, and its members can be found in Ireland, the United States, Canada, and the countries of the United Kingdom.

The roots of the Order can be found in Irish defense movements of the post-Reformation era, as the belligerently Protestant England persecuted Irish Catholics.

The story of post-Reformation Irish Catholics is primarily one of a people on the defensive. From the Cromwellian regime of the 1650s to the devastating Penal laws of the 1690s, Irish Catholics have often had to practice in secret to avoid heavy fines, if not worse.

In the late eighteenth century, an agrarian society known as the “Defenders” formed to take a more active role in protecting Catholic interests, particularly in the heavily Protestant regions in the north.

As Ireland was formally subsumed under the United Kingdom in the early nineteenth century, the Defenders reverted to the underground status of previous Catholic groups. They became known as the "Ribbonmen,” identifiable by the ribbons worn on their jackets. The Ribbonmen became a catchall term for a host of benevolent societies, such as the Hibernian Benevolent Society and Saint Patrick’s Funeral Society.

From this web of groups, the Ancient Order would emerge.

When English rule, followed by famine, drove many Irish people to North America, the need for groups like the Defenders and Ribbonmen followed them across the Atlantic as anti-Catholic nativism presented similar challenges to those faced by the Protestant English.

As Irish immigrants began to organize, particularly in the slums of New York’s Five Points neighborhood, they appealed to their countrymen back home for permission to establish a branch of Saint Patrick’s Funeral Society – which they received on the 4th of May in 1836.

They would rename themselves the cheerier Ancient Order of Hibernians just two years later.

The religious aspect of the society’s origins gradually faded away as the American religious landscape, though streaked with anti-Catholicism, was not nearly as oppressive as that in English-ruled Ireland. Still, a few occasions arose that required Hibernian strength.

In 1844, a group of Know-Nothings (the nineteenth-century American nativist party) threatened to burn down St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. In anticipation of this attack, armed members of the Order surrounded the church, ultimately saving this precious property.

The group also served as an avenue of social advocacy and locus of labor organization, assisting new immigrants in establishing a new life in America.

In 1894, a Ladies Auxiliary to the Ancient Order was established to fully recognize the contributions of Irish Catholic women to the Order's causes. The Auxiliary was promoted to a full order in 1985.

Like all groups of organized people, the Order was not without schism. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the issue of "Home Rule" or Irish independence briefly split the organization in two. The pacifist side, contented with Ireland remaining within the UK, gave way to the nationalist side that now characterizes the organization.

Today the society continues its mission to promote “Friendship, Unity, and Christian Charity” as it expresses its Irish heritage through its political advocacy for justice in Ireland, for Irish immigrants to America, and its Roman Catholic values through its charitable endeavors, such as Project Saint Patrick that grants funds to seminarians pursuing ordination.

This multi-faceted approach is a tricky one for a religious group to take. It can be challenging to see what is driving whom as interests collide. But the Ancient Order of Hibernians is a prime example of a people united by faith and ethnicity, attempting to tackle the social and political issues they face at home and in a place they once called home until they reach their eternal home in Christ.

The last word for today comes from Isaiah 65:

“For behold, I create new heavens

and a new earth,

and the former things shall not be remembered

or come into mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever

in that which I create;

for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,

and her people to be a gladness.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem

and be glad in my people;

no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping

and the cry of distress.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 4th of May 2022, brought to you by 1517 at

This show has been produced by Christopher Gillespie.

This show has been written and read by Sam Leanza Ortiz, filling in for a man who's an expert at ducking out of parties without saying goodbye – that's Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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