Ancient Order of Hibernians

The American Ancient Order of Hibernians was founded in 1836 in New York City as a religious, political, fraternal society, which later offered insurance. It was open to Catholic men of Irish decent, aged 16-45, and there were 191,000 members in 1994.
Even since its appearance in the United States in 1836, the A.O.H. has been through a number of revisions. It was always an example of ‘muscular Christianity’, and in the 1840s and 1850s it was called upon to combat so-called ‘nativist’ parties epitomized by the KNOW-NOTHINGS, who detested immigration and Catholicism about equally. In 1853, members were sufficiently numerous to muster 12,000 for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which in the political atmosphere of the day must have come close to incitement to riot.
In the 1860s and 1870s, it provided the structure for the ‘Molly Maguires’ labor movement, described below. Only in the 1880s did it begin to resemble its present form, and even then, there was a brief schism between the A.O.H. proper and the A.O.H. Board of Erin (1894-1898). Since then it has continued to support the Catholic faction in Ireland, even since the partition into Eire and the Six Counties (Northern Ireland).
Molly Maguire was a widow who was ejected from her poor cottage in Ireland by a heartless landlord, and in the vigilante days of the Ribbonmen, her name was frequently signed to notes warning other landlords not to overstep their bounds. She may of may not have actually existed.
In American usage, the Molly Maguires were Pennsylvania coal miners who formed a union against mine owners. Going beyond ordinary trade union practice, the Mollies probably engaged in arson, sabotage, intimidation and murder. Whether did did or not, 19 of them were hanged for such offenses.
The A.O.H. provided the structure, passwords, and meeting places for the Mollies, though the Mollies could be seen more as an organization that exploited the A.O.H. than as a part of it – except, of course, that pro-Molly feeling generally ran strong in the relevant lodges. Their actions were repudiated at the 1876 National Convention, at around the same time that the Mollies themselves were penetrated and broken by agents of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
The basic unit of the A.O.H. is the Division (Lodge); the next layer seems to be the biennial national convention. The number of degrees is not clear, the rituals are very hard to get.
The initiation ritual teaches lessons of friendship, unity and christian charity and Irish nationalism. The emblems of the order (predictably) the harp and shamrock, as well as the clasped hands. Each Division used to be substantially autonomous, setting dues and benefits, but since the insurance has had to conform to relevant federal and state law, greater uniformity has become the norm.
The purpose of the Order is:
- To promote friendship, unity and Christian charity among its members;
- To uphold and sustain loyalty to the government of the United States of America;
- To aid and advance by all legitimate means the aspirations and endeavors of the Irish people for complete and absolute independence;
- And to foster the ideals and cultivate the history and traditions of the Irish race throughout the world.

On a charitable level, the A.O.H. has supported Catholic educational charities and Catholic missions overseas. The Order is not hesitant to expressing political views on matters as abortion.
Membership was given as 125,000 in 1897 (plus 40,000 in the schismatic A.O.H./B.O.E.); 181,000 in 1965; 191,000 in 1978 and again 191,000 in 1994.
The Irish branch of the A.O.H. has evolved into a catholic counterpart of the Orange Orders and became more and more radical. An article about this can be found here.