The early AOH in America remained a defensive, yet secret, society, and while little is known of its specific activities, it is known that it assisted Irish immigrants in obtaining jobs and social services. Membership was well-guarded and restricted to Irish-born. Even meeting minutes used member numbers instead of names to protect identities. The first national conventions of the Order were held in New York, but as the Order grew. Other jurisdictions began seeking the honor, with Boston becoming the site of the first non-NY gathering. Some controversial issues arose in the early Order including opening membership to Irish Americans so that American-born sons of immigrants could join and the right of the AOH in Ireland to speak for the Order when they were still dominated by the Crown. At the same time, the militant Fenian Brotherhood began to infiltrate the AOH and run their people for top AOH offices. In the midst of all these issues the AOH split!
There were now two organizations in America: one took the name of the AOH, Board of Erin, and the other the AOH in America. Politics, personality conflicts, and petty jealousy brought to a shameful state, one of the noblest of the ancient Orders of Ireland. It would be years before saner heads prevailed and the two factions in America were brought to true brotherhood. The sad part is that the American and Irish branches of this noble order were not officially reconciled. Years later, the apolitical and religious posture of the Irish organization dictated their support for Parnell’s struggle for an independent Ireland through Parliamentary reform and they became champions of Home Rule. The appearance in the early 1900’s of a more militant faction never swayed the AOH Board of Erin from that commitment, and they were often criticized for not being outspoken disciples of the revolutionary action proposed by the heroes of Easter Week.
They remained true to their principles, and gave neither support nor opposition to the militants during the 1916 insurrection, the War of Independence, and the Civil War that followed. This again strained relations with the American AOH who supported the militants although some AOH divisions in Ireland did take part in the rising. For years, the two Boards remained as distant cousins who never spoke. Few remembered, or even knew, the old animosities, and fewer still held grudges against the branch of the Order across blue highway home, yet the breach remained – in spite of the fact that the AOH in America proudly pointed to their Irish heritage and the fact that the Irish organization had a litany of proud accomplishments and opposition to the Crown.
Then, in 1981, Jack Connolly, President of the AOH in America, stopped into an AOH hall in Ireland. His historic gesture, opened dialogue between the two branches of the Order, and resulted in the visit of a group of Belfast Hibernians to Boston and New York to march in their St Patrick’s Day parades. Hospitality was provided to visiting Hibernian officials during the next few administrations, but little of significance occurred until 1992 when Board of Erin Secretary Frank Kieran visited America. Hibernian hospitality was extended by the American Board and, in conversations held during that visit, it was proposed that the two branches consider a joint project. At the 1994 American National Convention in Louisville Kentucky, it was announced that the joint project would be a memorial to the victims of the Great Hunger to be erected in Ireland in 1995.
On August 20 1995, the dream came true as the American and Irish National Boards gathered in Ennistymon, Co. Clare to dedicate that memorial. In unveiling the memorial, Dail Eireann’s Minister of State, Donal Carey, noted that this was the first national monument in all of Ireland to the victims of the Great Hunger, and it took the AOH to do it. It was a proud moment for the AOH, and a visible indication of what unity can achieve. More significant, but less publicized was an event that took place days earlier on August 12, just after the American Board had arrived in Ireland. It was the first joint meeting in history between the AOH National Boards of America, Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales. That meeting opened a new chapter in Hibernian history, which was confirmed by the hospitality extended in Hibernian Halls in Counties Louth, Down, Antrim, and Derry where the American Board was hosted and celebrated. The American Order also marched in solidarity with Board of Erin AOH in Co. Derry in commemoration of the Feast of the Assumption and later, Bloody Sunday. As a result of those historic gatherings and marches, the prejudice of the past has been buried, and the AOH now stands, not only as the oldest Catholic Lay organization in America, but as the largest Irish Catholic society in the world with Divisions across the United States, and close ties with the AOH in Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales, and most recently the AOH in Canada.
In America, the Division is the basic unit of the Order. Divisions are combined into County Boards, which are in turn governed by State Boards, and an overall National Board elected every two years. Annual dances, concerts, and parades sponsored at all levels of the Order raise millions for charity while providing a showcase for the positive contributions the Irish have made in every walk of American life. Divisions and Hibernian Halls across the country have traditionally provided a welcome for new immigrants. Here, the unique art, dance, music, and other interests of the Irish are fostered and preserved, making the AOH a home away from home for many. They are at the forefront of support for issues concerning the Irish such as Immigration Reform, MacBride Legislation, and the Right to Life. They serve their Church well, yet, they never forget their ancestral homeland, and can always be found lobbying, praying, and working for the total independence of a united 32-county Ireland — as their constitution avows: “by all means constitutional and lawful.”
The initials AOH may tell the story best. Those who say it means “Add One Hour” are describing the easygoing, no rush attitude of many of its members, while “America’s Only Hope” has been used to define the loyalty of the Irish to the principles of their adopted land. In any case, its members are best described by the statement, “To be Irish is a Blessing, To be a Hibernian is an Honor.”