‘Faith and Fatherland’ – The Ancient Order of Hibernians and Home Rule decline in Four Nations

‘Faith and Fatherland’ – The Ancient Order of Hibernians and Home Rule decline in Four Nations

Martin O’Donoghue (NUI, Galway) argues for a four nations approach to the history of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, to understand its rise and fall, and connection to major historical movements

Although best known today as an Irish diaspora organisation in North America, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) was a major nationalist organisation on the island of Ireland in the early twentieth century. The major stem of the organisation was the AOH-BOE, controlled by the Board of Erin (BOE) which ran the Order in Ireland and Great Britain. It was this organisation which provided an organisational bulwark to the home rule movement on both sides of the Irish Sea and offers an important lens through which to view the decline of home rule in a four nations context.

Devlin’s leadership

In 1905, the Irish Party MP Joe Devlin became the Order’s President. Under his guidance and that of National Secretary John Dillon Nugent (later an MP himself), the AOH-BOE quickly spread throughout northern Irish counties and Scotland, expansion in both areas apparently aided by the remnants of Ribbonism and an easing of the Catholic hierarchy’s hostility to the organisation.[1] The Order provided an organisational boost for home rule and it was closely associated with the Irish Party from this point. Widespread growth in the rest of Ireland accelerated after the introduction of National Health Insurance Act in 1911 made the AOH an ‘approved society’. Its insurance section grew exponentially from this point although ‘private’ membership also remained high.

Joe Devlin
Source: Wikimedia Commons

While the United Irish League (primarily an agrarian organisation in Ireland) also spread throughout the UK, the AOH had a number of significant features across the four nations. In Ireland, the AOH-BOE was interlinked with the Irish Party; it counted MPs and councillors among its members and enjoyed voting rights at selection conventions for parliamentary candidates. Hibernian activities in Scotland were given special coverage in the Order’s monthly Hibernian Journal under the heading ‘St. Mungo’s Chimes’. The Scottish Order was distinctive in that its Ladies’ Auxiliary was first established there and remained more vibrant than in the other nations.

Hibernianism has been documented in Wales from an early stage, but the AOH-BOE in the early twentieth century was small.[2] England was home to considerably more Hibernians, but the organisation was certainly less proportionally significant than was the case in Scotland. In August 1917, the Hibernian Journal printed membership figures which recorded 10,933 ‘private members’ in Scotland out of a total membership of 50,866. There were just 2,793 such members in England whiles Wales could only boast 547 Hibernians, all in Glamorgan.[3] In England, divisions were organised chiefly in centres of Irish population although numbers were particularly high in the north-east as 1,300 members were reported in Durham. In Scotland, membership density was greatest in western regions such as Renfrew, Dumbarton, Lanark and Glasgow.

Decline

The Order was set to enjoy a prominent role in a Home Rule Ireland; however, the years from 1914 onwards saw it go into an unprecedented decline from which the Order would never recover on this side of the Atlantic.

The 1916 Rising and its aftermath caused enormous damage to the home rule movement generally. While Devlin and John Redmond succeeded in convincing a conference of Ulster nationalists on 23 June to accept temporary exclusion of six northern counties from a proposed home rule settlement, fissures in northern nationalism were opened as the AOH and the Irish Party were increasingly challenged; a number of divisions published resolutions disapproving of the decision. While the whole scheme soon collapsed, the AOH was left to defend its actions, emphasising that Redmond had only agreed to temporary partition.[4]

As decline set in, the nexus of Hibernian and Irish Party interest meant that leaving the party almost necessarily meant leaving the Order. Enlistment in the British Army had already damaged membership, especially in Britain. This had serious knock-on effects for the Order in falling contributions and the risk of further claims on its funds after the war.

Although the Order had been accused of violence against suffragists in 1912, as Diane Urquhart has shown, the AOH was perhaps the most significant home rule organisation for women’s activism in the 1918 general election campaign.[5] The Order’s Ladies’ Auxiliary updated electoral registers and canvassed, especially for Devlin who defeated Éamon de Valera in West Belfast.[6] However, the Irish Party was swept aside by Sinn Féin in December 1918 and the AOH was left on the wrong side of nationalist politics.

Conclusion

Despite the variation in membership across the different countries, in-depth analysis of the AOH from four nations perspective promises a crucial aid to understanding home rule and diaspora politics in the period. The Order had some concerns which were peculiar to it in each of the countries and its social activities and Catholic ethos helped it to survive for many years. However, the overarching association with home rule proved disastrous in this period as the Irish Party collapsed and Irish nationalist politics transformed at home and in Britain.

[1] Donald M. MacRaild; The Irish Diaspora in Britain, 1750-1939 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp, 75-6; Máirtín Seán Ó Catháin, Irish Republicanism in Scotland 1858-1916: Fenians in Exile (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2007), pp. 144-5; A. C. Hepburn, ‘Catholic Ulster and Irish Politics: The Ancient Order of Hibernians, 1905-14’, A Past Apart: Studies in the History of Catholic Belfast 1850-1950 (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 1996), pp. 158-160.

[2] John Hickey, ‘Irish settlement in Nineteenth-Century Cardiff’ in Paul O’Leary (ed.) Irish Migrants in Modern Wales (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2004), pp. 34-53.

[3] Hibernian Journal, August 1917, p. 34.

[4] Hibernian Journal, August 1916, pp. 276-7.

[5] Senia Pašeta, Irish Nationalist Women, 1900-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 78; Diane Urquhart, Women in Ulster Politics 1890-1940 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2000).

[6] Urquhart, Women in Ulster, pp. 105, 159, 201.

Martin O’Donoghue teaches history at the National University of Ireland, Galway. His PhD thesis on the legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in independent Ireland was completed last year and was funded by the Irish Research Council. This research is currently being prepared for publication as a monograph. Martin’s research interests include twentieth-century Irish and British history; commemoration and public memory, and the Irish diaspora.

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