Molly Malone may be the best-known Molly in Irish history, folklore or music, but despite her entrepreneurial spirit and wide wheelbarrow, she wasn’t nearly as important, influential, or reviled as Molly Maguire. Whether or not either of these iconic women actually existed, is a moot point, but in the case of Ms. Maguire the organization with which her name was associated, was a force to be reckoned with in Irish and Irish-American political life for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
One critic, a unionist, referred to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (often known as The Mollies) as ‘a bitterly sectarian and secret society with a long dark and cruel history’. You might respond, ‘well he was probably a member of the Orange Order, so what would expect him to say?’ But the distinguished nationalist MP William O’Brien referred to the Hibernians as a Frankenstein, and the Roman Catholic Cardinal Logue described it as ‘‘a pest, a cruel tyranny, and an organised system of blackguardism’, although his beef was as much to do with late night drinking and dancing, than politics
So, what was the nature of this monster, or fraternal Catholic organisation, depending on your point of view. Initially it was primarily an American Catholic body, which emerged at a time of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment in the USA. This was exemplified by the activities of the nativist and anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party, and attacks on churches and church property across the US east coast cities. Founded in New York in 1836 the Hibernians quickly moved into machine politics, and became an arm of the Democratic party, in organisations like Tammany Hall in New York city.
In the coal and anthracite regions of Pennsylvania its lodges or chapters were associated with the secretive militant labour group, the Molly Maguires, called after an Irish agrarian movement of tenant farmers, better known for shooting landlords, than ploughing or milking. In 1884, as Brendan Behan could have predicted, there was a split in the organisation – the reasons are far too tedious to rehearse and don’t really matter anyway as they kissed and made up again in 1898. At that stage, there were just under two hundred thousand Americans affiliated to the AOH.
In the late nineteenth century, the Ancient Order of Hibernians was imported from the USA and began to take hold in Ulster, where it was seen as a political and cultural counterweight to the loyalist Orange Order, and was organised along similar lines. Around this time, it acquired its eminence grise, in the form of the West Belfast Irish Parliamentary Party MP Joseph Devlin. Devlin was the archetypal party boss. If he had moved to the USA he probably would have become Mayor or Governor of New York, or ‘Boss’ of the corrupt but mightily effective Tammany Hall machine.
Instead he used the pietistic and nationalistic AOH as a power base for his dominance of Ulster nationalism and wielded a huge influence on the Irish Parliamentary Party, while it was under the leadership of John Redmond. So powerful was Devlin that not even the Sinn Fein landslide of 1918 could shift him. Almost all of the few surviving nationalist MPs were in Ulster, clinging on largely thanks to Devlin’s popularity and capable management.
The Irish and American branches of the organisation formally merged in 1902. Between then, and the outbreak of the Great War, the Irish section of the AOH grew from about five thousand members, mostly in Ulster lodges, to just short of one hundred thousand throughout the thirty-two counties.
The AOH was never a radical organisation, although it could often be relied upon to resort to strong-arm tactics against loyalist or rival nationalist groups. It opposed Larkin and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union during the 1913 lockout. Larkin blamed the AOH for helping to prolong the strike. In the 1930s there was a strong Hibernian presence in the ranks of O’Duffy’s Blueshirts, and many Hibernians joined the Irish Brigade which fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. For a century and a half, until 1993, the AOH ran the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade with a rod of iron, ensuring that, for example, gay and lesbian groups were not allowed to parade.
On the plus side, it served as an effective protective force against American nativism, and has contributed hundreds of thousands of pounds and dollars to charitable causes.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians, in many ways a mirror image of the Orange Order, was founded in the notorious Five Points neighbourhood in New York, one hundred and eighty-two years ago, on this day.