The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) is an Irish Catholic fraternal organisation. Members must be Catholic and either Irish-born or of Irish descent. Its largest membership is now in the United States, where it was founded in New York City in 1836. Its name was adopted by groups of Irish immigrants in the United States, its purpose to act as guards to protect Catholic churches from anti-Catholic forces in the mid-19th century, and to assist Irish Catholic immigrants, especially those who faced discrimination or harsh coal mining working conditions. Many members in the coal mining area of Pennsylvania had a background with the Molly Maguires. It became an important focus of Irish American political activity.
The organisation had its roots in the Defenders and the Ribbonmen, Catholic agrarian movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. It emerged in Ulster at the end of the 19th century in opposition to the Orange Order. It was organised by Joseph Devlin of Belfast, who was Grand Master by 1905. The AOH was closely associated with the Irish Parliamentary Party, its members mainly members of the party. It was strongly opposed to secular ideologies such as those of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the IRB), who were most unhappy at the re-emergence of this old rival "right-wing" nationalist society. Membership in the group was initially banned by the Catholic Church, although this was lifted in 1904.
From a membership of 5,000 in 1900, nearly all in Ulster, it climbed to 64,000 by 1909, complementing the United Irish League. By 1914 the order had spread throughout the country, mainly because of its utility as a patronage, brokerage and recreational association. As a vehicle for Irish nationalism, the AOH greatly influenced the sectarian aspect of Irish politics in the early twentieth century. In Ulster and elsewhere it acted as an unruly but vigorous militant support organisation for Devlin, Dillon and Redmond against radicals and against William O'Brien: O'Brien regarded himself as having been driven from the party by militant Hibernians at the "Baton Convention" of 1909.
After the 1916 Easter Rising the organisation declined outside of Ulster, its members absorbed into Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army (the IRA). In many areas the organisation provided by the AOH was the nearest thing to a paramilitary force. Many republican leaders in the 1916–1923 period, among them Seán MacDiarmada, J.J. Walsh and Rory O'Connor, had been "Hibs" before the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913.
The AOH is also significant as a link between the new nationalist organisations and the century-old tradition of popular militant societies. More directly, it lingered on as a pro-Treaty support organisation. Some Hibernians fought in the Irish Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. The quasi-Fascist Blueshirts movement of the 1930s may, in fact, have owed as much to the Ribbon tradition which it so much resembled, as it did to continental analogies.
Within Ulster generally, but especially within Northern Ireland, the AOH remains a visible but somewhat marginal part of the Catholic community. It parades at Easter, Lady Day and a few other times a year. Being the closest Catholic equivalent to the Orange Order, the AOH has been described as the Green Orangemen. A typical parade is similar to an Orange Order march although much smaller in size and usually the parade does not have a return leg.
At the beginning of The Troubles, the AOH placed a voluntary ban on its members parading until 1975, though records of some parades taking place in defiance of the ban were reported. In 1978 an estimated 10,000 participants attended a parade in Kilrea. Since then there has been a rapid decrease of numbers and usually around 20 divisions parade at a single location in contrast to The Twelfth, where 18 locations are used by the Orange Order on the one day.
The locations of AOH parades in Northern Ireland generally tend to be areas with a high Catholic population coupled with the AOH's desire not to provoke trouble. County Fermanagh has never hosted an AOH parade since the onset of The Troubles and County Armagh has held one. The majority of the 21 locations for parades have been in counties Antrim, Down and Derry. On occasion when the parade has been held in an area with a significant loyalist population it has been met with an aggressive protest, notably Garvagh in 1985 and Armoy in 1989 which held its first AOH parade in 35 years.
The Order was founded in the United States on 4 May 1836, at St. James Church in New York City, near the old Five Points neighbourhood. A branch was formed the same year at Pottsville, Pennsylvania. The existence and activities of the Order were concealed for some years.
During the late 1860s and early 1870s many of the lodges of the order in Pennsylvania were infiltrated by the Molly Maguires. However the Molly Maguires and their criminal activities were condemned at the 1876 national convention of the AOH and the Order was reorganised in the Pennsylvania coal areas.
In 1884 there was a split in the organisation. The Order had previously been governed by the Board of Erin, which had governed the order in Ireland, Great Britain and the United States, but was composed of officers selected exclusively by the organisations in Ireland and Great Britain. The majority left in 1884 and became the Ancient Order of Hibernians of America, while the small group called itself Ancient Order of Hibernians, Board of Erin. In 1897 the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Board of Erin, had approximately 40,000 members concentrated in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan, while the Ancient Order of Hibernians of America had nearly 125,000 members scattered throughout nearly every state in the union. The two groups reunited in 1898.
A female auxiliary, the Daughters of Erin, was formed in 1894, and had 20,000 members in 1897. It was attached to the larger, "American" version of the order. The AOH had 181,000 members in 1965 and 171,000 in 736 local units of "Divisions" in 1979. John F. Kennedy joined the AOH in 1947.
The Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians (LAOH) raised $50,000 to build the Nuns of the Battlefield sculpture in Washington, D.C., which the United States Congress authorised in 1918. The Irish-American sculptor, Jerome Connor, ended up suing the Order for non-payment.
In 1982, in a revival of Hibernianism, the Thomas Francis Meagher Division No. 1 formed in Helena, Montana, dedicated to the principles of the Order and to restoring a historically accurate record of Brigadier General Meagher's contributions to Montana. Soon after, six additional divisions formed in Montana.
The Order organised the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade for 150 years, emphasising a conservative Catholic interpretation of the Irish holiday. In 1993 control was transferred to an independent committee amid controversy over the exclusion of Irish-American gay and lesbian groups.
The Brothers of St. Patrick Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America was established at Brother's of St. Patrick in Midway City, California, in 1995.
In 2013, The Ancient Order of Hibernians raised and distributed over $200,000 to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy.
In 2014, the AOH called for a boycott of Spencer's Gifts, for selling products the AOH says promote anti-Irish stereotypes and irresponsible drinking.
On 10 May 2014 a memorial to Commodore John Barry, an immigrant from Wexford who was a naval hero of the American Revolution and who holds commission number one in the subsequent U.S. Navy, was dedicated on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy. The memorial and associated "Barry Gate" was presented to the Academy by the members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Several buildings of the Ancient Order of Hibernians are listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places or are otherwise notable.