I wanted to write about Irish fraternal organizations and societies that emerged in nineteenth century America as the population of Irish immigrants grew, but then I realized I really don’t know anything about the subject. Instead, I will share some thoughts on the Irish immigrant experience, with a bit on Irish-American organizations.
When I was in Concord, New Hampshire early in October, the parish secretary of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church pointed to a house where Mass was said in the days before the church was built and the parish established in 1869. She said that the Irish (who were more or less the only Catholics in Concord at the time) had to be careful because they could be evicted for having a priest say Mass in their home.
My great-great-grandfather came to live in Concord shortly after arriving in America in 1864. His name was Patrick Foley, and he came from Kilmichael Parish in County Cork (see the last post.) Patrick Foley could read and write, and at various times served as doorkeeper, secretary, and president of the St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society in Concord.
Another one of my great-great-grandfathers, John Regan, came from Kilmichael Parish in County Cork as well and settled in Concord. He could neither read nor write, and very likely couldn’t even speak English when he left Ireland. If the people of Concord were intolerant of Catholics, one can imagine they did not have much time for non-English speakers. Organizations such as the St. Patrick’s Benevolent Society and the Ancient Order of Hibernians (the AOH, who had a branch in Concord) would have been very important in helping new immigrants adjust to life in America and help protect their religious rights.
My great-great-grandfathers moved west to Clontarf, Minnesota in the late 1870s as part of Bishop John Ireland’s Catholic colonization efforts. Most of the early settlers were fellow Irishmen and women who had worked for ten years or more in the crowded cities on the East coast or farmed small plots of rented land, saving what money they could for a chance to own land and live in a community where they had their own church and their own priest.
The AOH hall still stands in Clontarf, Minnesota and serves as St. Malachy Parish Hall. On the prairie of Western Minnesota, the goals of the AOH began to shift. They could turn their attention toward selling insurance policies and planning St. Patrick’s Day programs now that they were free to practice their religion.
What does any of this mean to you, as you search for your Irish relatives who came to America? Not sure, exactly, except I hope it contributes to your understanding of what life was like for Irish immigrants in America.
The AOH still exists today. There are a number of local branches throughout America. Go here for a list. Maybe your relative was once a member, or your cousins still are…