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Immigrant Benevolent Societies and Fraternal Orders


The resources of these groups were inadequate for the support of thousands of immigrants who applied to them for relief. Funds were quickly exhausted even in prosperous years, while during depressions they had no hope of coping with demands for charity.
Shamrock Society - active during & after the War of 1812
Irish Emigrant Society - organized in 1817 by the exiles of 1798 - when their plan for
having 10 twps. set aside in Ill. for Irish immigrants [failed?], they died.
Emigrant Assistance Society - 1826 - 1st one formed without social functions - had a well-
rounded program of immigrant aid. It directed incoming strangers to work on the roads & canals.
Irish Emigrant Society - 1841 - founded under the auspices of Bishop (later Archbishop)
John Hughes. Its promoters were leading Catholics & Protestants & its spokesman was
a paper, the Freeman's Journal, which was devoted to Irish Catholic interests & stressed
Americanism. It had a long career.

All immigrant aid societies experienced difficulties in raising funds; 1.) the immigrant communities were poor & unable to help much with a broadly-based help program; 2.) the Native American [i.e., native-born American] communities were indifferent, saying that 3.) the Catholic Church should care for its own.
Society of St. Vincent de Paul - 1846 - The church found itself unable to care for the hordes fleeing from the famine. To grant relief & to preserve family life among the impoverished Catholic immigrants, Bishop Hughes sponsored its organization. He also brought several Sisters of Mercy from Ireland to open a home for destitute immigrant girls. At the same time the Catholic churches founded benevolent societies to minister to the poor. The Benevolent Society of St. Patrick's Cathedral held annual festivals, enabling it to donate clothing & cash to the Catholic poor, & to contribute to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
- Robt. Ernst, Immigrant Life in N.Y. City, chap. III

When Congress met in December 1817 it was greeted with petitions from the Irish societies of N.Y., Philadelphia, & Baltimore. Let Congress, they asked, set aside the existing land regulations & sell on long-term credit, instead of the usual 4 years, a township in Illinois territory to be settled by Irishmen. In February 1818 the House Committee rejected the petition - this was discriminating against natives in favor of foreigners.
- Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Migration, p. 93-94

In most centers of population in Canada & the U.S. were to be found the national societies of St. George, St. Patrick, & St. Andrew, which served the double purpose of keeping green the memory of the Old Land & of assisting their compatriots. Many a family owed their start in the New World to these societies or other kindhearted individuals.
Guillet, The Great Migration, p. 173

Boston - Militia companies were primarily social organizations... The Irish formed their own. The earliest, the Montgomery Guards, had disbanded after 1839 [in the wake of] a dispute, but the Columbian Artillery, the Bay State Artillery, & the Saarsfield Guards took its place by 1852. Dissolved by the governor in 1853 as a result of Know-Nothing agitation, they continued their activities in new skins. The Columbian Artillery became the Columbian Literary Association, while the Saarsfield Guards became the Saarsfield Union Association, & their balls, picnics, & lectures lost nothing in popularity.
The traditional St. Patrick's Day dinners soon proved inadequate for the Irish. No banquet room was big enough, only a spectacular parade could show the full ranks. Led by music, 2,000 marched in 1841 & thereafter the number of loyal Irishmen & flamboyant bands grew. Mass usually followed, for the Church stressed the religious aspects of the day.
- Oscar Handlin, Boston's Immigrants, p. 157

...revealing reflection of group consciousness was the banding together in autonomous social organizations. This development which isolated the newcomer far more exclusively than mere geographical segregation was in most cases due to the exclusive attitudes of the natives, who tended to bar immigrants from existing societies. Most of the numerous Irish military companies came into existence only after Irishmen had been refused admission to native companies.
- Maldwyn A. Jones, Am. Imm., p. 134
Immigrant associations sometimes represented communal attempts to meet material needs in time of crisis. Thus the numerous mutual aid societies & benevolent associations strove, with varying degrees of success, to provide sickness benefits & to pay funeral expenses. But the real function of these & similar immigrant organizations was to satisfy the desire of their members for companionship & familiar surroundings, & thus to soften the effects of contact with a strange environment. Immigrant militia & fire companies, too, were essentially social clubs.
In addition each [immigrant] group sought to preserve in America the familiar cultural pattern of the old country. For this purpose the most widely-effective instruments were the church & the school.
- Ibid., p. 136

1737 - Boston: "Charitable Irish Society" organized by 26 "gentlemen, merchants, & others,
Natives of Ireland, or of Irish extraction."
1751 - Pennsylvania: "Hibernian Fire Company;" a greater Irish immigration here than in
any other colony.
1771 - Philadelphia: "The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick." About this time societies bearing
this name were founded in Boston & N.Y., as convivial clubs welcoming Irish
immigrants. These were founded upon the model of the "Friendly Brothers of St.
Patrick," which had existed in Dublin and other Irish cities a generation before, & was
well-known throughout Ireland. This organization in Philadelphia in 1780 subscribed €103,000 ($515,000), one-third the sum collected, to supply the Continental Army with food. Among its members were Commodore Barry (father of American Navy) & Gen.
Anthony Wayne. Washington, who was an honorary member, called it "a society
distinguished for the firm adherence of its members to the glorious cause in which we
are embarked."
1790 - Mar. 3, Philadelphia: "Hibernian Society for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland." Other societies with same name & purpose organized in other seaports in the early years of the 19th century but the Philadelphia society was, from the character of its members, the extent of its beneficence, & the length of its existence, the most famous... These societies extended a strong hand to the moneyless & helpless people that came after the Revolution, & not only aided them with gifts of money but also secured employment, provided medical attention, & disseminated information. The Friendly Sons & the Hibernians worked side by side (many belonged to both), & eventually amalgamated. The Ancient Order of Hibernians claims its origins in the knightly orders of Pagan Ireland. In the 6th century they assumed the cross as their emblem & became the defenders of the Church. The Ancient Orders were revived in 1642 in the Catholic
Confederation of Kilkenny by Rory O'More, grandfather of Patrick Sarsfield.
Early 19th century - the Whiteboys, etc.. combined as Ribbonmen.
1825 - Ribbonmen changed their name to "St. Patrick's Fraternal Society," & chapters formed in Scotland & England as "Hibernian Funeral Society."
1836 - A charter of the above granted in N.Y. City & in Schuylkill Co., Penn..
1848 - Irish Republican Union formed, which was succeeded by the Emmet Monument
Association. These societies were influential in the organization of 69th & 75th
Regiments of the N.Y. Militia - famous in the Civil War & WWI.
1851 - A charter granted to the N.Y. City divisions under the "Ancient Order of Hibernians."
1857-67 - Fenian Brotherhood formed to promote revolution in Ireland. They invaded
Canada under Col. William R. Roberts. The U.S. government stopped this & the Fenians
were disbanded.
- John O'Dea (Nat. Historian of the Ancient Order of Hibernians), in the
collection by Dunn & Lennox, The Glories of Ireland, p. 176


In New York City -
For closer & more permanent associations, the newcomers founded or joined huge number of fraternal & benevolent societies. Their members, whose meager earnings induced them to band together for protection against the uncertainties of life in an era which saw only the beginnings of life insurance.1
In the twenties the Irish formed a Hibernian Universal Benevolent Society & a St. Patrick Friendly Society, which were the first of many groups appearing in the next 3 decades.
Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y. City, chap. XI

Most of the larger benevolent associations, like the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, were composed of wealthy merchants & professional men. Thus it was customary for these groups to help the poor of their own nationalities, but their charity relieved only a minute portion of the needy, & new societies attempted futilely to accomplish the same ends.

Sport & athletic clubs -
As early as 1833 the East River Fishing Club was organized by Irishmen. An Irish Hurling & Football Club was formed "to revive that truly Irish national sport."

N.Y. Irish Bank (Irish Immigrant Society)
Ignorance, suspicion, lack of interest, & insufficient funds had prevented the establishment of savings banks until the winter of 1850-51, when the untiring efforts of the Irish Emigrant Society secured a charter for an Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank. Most of the Bank's depositors, numbering about 2,300, were servants & laborers, but some were well-to-do; their accounts in 1856 averaged $238.56, & ranged from $1.00 to $10,000.
- Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y., chap. XI


Ancient Order of Hibernians

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, organized in 1836 by members of St. Patrick's Fraternal Society of N.Y., a burial society, as an American auxiliary of the Ribbon Society of Ireland, had become (in 1853) a benevolent, mutual-aid organization which steadily attracted membership in the 1850s.
- Geo. Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 574

The outgrowth of the Ribbonmen & Ancient Order of the Friendly Brothers of St. Patrick, St. Patrick's Fraternal Society, etc.. Some sort of an amalgamation of all these societies became the Ancient Order of Hibernians, first in America, then later in a reverse transplant, back in Ireland.
By the 1870s it was the most powerful benevolent & immigrant-aid lodge in the country.
The qualifications for membership were set around 1836-38. All members had to be Roman Catholics & Irish or of Irish descent, & none "shall join in any secret societies contrary to the laws of the Catholic Church."
- Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., The Molly Maquires, chap. II

[Pinkerton Detective Agency agent James] McParlan - When there is a job to be done (men to be beaten or murdered) the matter is never brought up in open lodge - but the Bodymaster receives the grievance or complaint & appoints a man or men privately & secretly notifies them of what they are to do, and then the "job" is done, & the members of the lodge are never made aware of the transaction, or who the avengers are which must be kept a profound secret.
There was then an inner circle, composed of AOH bodymasters & other officers, who acted, sometimes singly, more often in concert, to settle grievances privately. The AOH membership probably knew in a general way that such a system existed, but were not made privy to the plans. In the anthracite region most people used the name Molly Maguires as synonymous with AOH lodges.
- Wayne Broehl, Jr., The Molly Maguires, p. 169

A.O.H., Molly Maguires, & the Catholic Church -
In 1875 Father O'Reilly (in Shenandoah) read a long list of names of members from the pulpit & asked the congregation to pray for their lost souls. Though far short of formal excommunication, it was a startling experience for the members involved.
- Broehl, The M. Maquires
Public opinion was bitterly against the Molly Maguires. This had been true for over 10 years (1875). The notion of forming vigilante groups had been openly advocated (even in the press) as far back as the late 1860s.
At 3 a.m. Dec. 10, 1875 the Wiggins Patch murders took place.
The Freeman's Journal said, "The exceedingly ugly fact exists that while some archbishops & bishops declare, as of their personal & sure knowledge, that the AOH is such a society as falls under the condemnation of the Catholic Church, other Catholic prelates treat the society as composed for the most part of Catholics obedient to their wishes."
James Frederic Wood became Archbishop in Feb. 1875; flatly opposed to M. M.s. In a pastoral Jan. 1864 he had roundly condemned the "Molly Maguires & others." Not a formal excommunication but a severe warning. After the Wiggans Patch affair, on Dec. 15, 1875, he reissued his pastoral, significantly adding after "the Molly Maquires" the additional words "otherwise the Ancient Order of Hibernians." The following Sunday it was read in most of the parish churches of Schuylkill Co.. This time there was no doubt about it being an excommunication. Rev. Daniel O'Connor of Mahanog Plane said that Sunday when he read the Archbishop's letter, "Beware of the Molly Maguires. If you have a brother among them, pray for his repentance but have nothing further to do with him - remember that he is cut off from the Church."
- Ibid.
In the 1877 National Convention of the A.O.H. issued an "Address to the People of the U.S.": "For some time a stigma or cloud has rested over the Ancient Order of Hibernians on account of certain portions of Penn.. ...The Order does not recognize any connection with...that terrible band of misguided men." After a searching investigation it had been decided "to cut off from all connections with our organization the Schuylkill, Carbon, Northumberland, & Columbia County lodges." The A.O.H. said it realized that because of this action "a great number of good men would suffer for the misdeeds of a few...but the character of the organization was involved."
- Ibid.
The authors feel that there was an inner circle of men in the lodges that were the Mollys, & that the membership in general was not connected with the crimes.



Fenian Brotherhood

The Civil War left Anglo-American relations strained. The Am. Irish rejoiced at this & tried to use it to turn the U.S. government to a pro-Irish-freedom policy.
One famous incident was the Fenian Invasion of Canada. The Fenian Brotherhood organized thousands of Irish-Americans with "circles" in the army & navy, as well as in the civilian population. A Fenian Convention met in Cincinnati & created on paper an Irish Republic and began to sell bonds & prepare for an invasion of Canada... On June 1, 1866, the hosts of Fenianism crossed the Niagara border 1,500 strong, seized Fort Erie, and threw up entrenchments. The American authorities proved extremely lax in preventing the mobilization of the Fenians along the border, & the Am. Sec. of State, probably with an eye on the Irish voters, waited 5 days before issuing a neutrality proclamation. Several minor engagements were fought, & then the foolhardy adventure collapsed.
We Who Built Am., p. 177
(There is no evidence that this caused a ripple on the Island, in spite of its proximity to Canada. One month later, July 4, 1866, the large party of McCauleys, Greens, & Gallaghers arrived from Aranmo



Fire Companies

(In New York City) After mid-century a number of the city's volunteer fire companies were completely dominated by immigrants, usually Irish. Feasting & drinking were an integral part of the fireman's life, & until the temperance movement crept into the firehouses, a barrel of liquor was frequently hauled along with the engine to each fire for the resuscitation of the fire laddies.
- Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y. City, chap. XI

(In New York City) For many years fire-fighting in the U.S. was in the hands of volunteer companies. The opportunity to become a "fire laddie" was irresistible for many Irish... Each firehouse, especially in large cities like N.Y., also attracted a large group that ran along to every fire, so that "running with the machine" eventually degenerated into a sport which attracted the hoodlums & gangs of the Bowery district. The volunteer firemen of the '40s & later decades appeared in brilliant uniforms, with ponderous equipment of the comic-opera variety. Much feasting & drinking seemed to be part of the routine business of these organizations, and until the temperance movement made its inroads upon the profession, companies frequently had a steward, whose business it was to ladle out liquor to exhausted firemen from a barrel hauled along with the engine to each fire.
When an alarm sounded, the rivalry between companies was likely to be so keen that a race was started for the only fireplug available in the vicinity of the fire. Specially competent fighters raced ahead to capture the hydrant or cistern & to hold it at all costs until their colleagues arrived with the machine. Feuds & brawls were frequent, & occasionally a building burned to the ground while the heroic fire laddies were settling their long-standing rivalries. In 1845 the Philadelphia Commissioners reduced the annual appropriation for fire companies because of their turbulent & riotous conduct. But nine years later (1854) a lively battle was fought in the City of Brotherly Love between Irish Catholic & Irish Protestant fire companies. In 1860 there was another battle royal of firemen in N.Y., involving several companies "with stones, trumpets, & pistols. A dozen were carried off to the hospital" (Boston Pilot, July 14, 1860).
- Carl Wittke, We Who Built America, p. 145-46

Firefighting in America, though not especially efficient, was picturesque. In New York, the location of a fire was indicated by a crimson ball or lantern suspended from the cupola of the City Hall. The position of the ball [in relation] to the cupola indicated the direction of the fire. Mrs. Felton (in N.Y. 1836-37) narrates that one night fires were discovered in 3 separate locations. The lantern was shifted from one location to another, with the result that the firemen raced around in circles 'til messengers were sent out to direct them...
Immediately the alarm was given the volunteer firemen would rush to the engine houses for their apparatus & race to the fire. It was established for the first brigade to reach the scene to be in command. This produced keen competition. The engines were pulled through the streets by companies [of] from 20 to 100 men. Persons in the way, even stumbling firemen, were ruthlessly run over. So great was the rush to arrive first, affirmed British visitors, that firemen ran out dressed only in boots & overcoats & finished their wardrobe at the fire. Should two companies arrive at the same time, a bloody battle quite frequently ensued between them while the flames raged unchecked. After the fire, or in the event of a false alarm, the firemen adjourned to a tavern & made a night of it.
- Max Berger, The British Traveller in America, p. 30

Military Companies

[See also Civil War]

(New York) A compelling reason for the establishment of "foreign" military companies was the unwillingness of the native[-born] companies to admit immigrants. Thus in 1836, when the N.Y. cadets resolved to prohibit foreigners from joining the corps, 10 Irish members immediately declared their independence & organized an Irish company, the Montgomery Guards. Because newcomers were rarely admitted to native units of the state militia, scores of Irish & German companies were soon organized, & although they bought their own uniforms, the state supplied them with arms & equipment. In 1850 some 700 men of the Irish Dragoons, Guyon Cadets, Felon Light Guards, Carroll Light Guards, Saarsfield Guards, Erina Guards, & other Irish companies combined as the "Irish Volunteers" to form the 9th Regiment of the N.Y. State Militia, the first Irish regiment in America. During the next 10 years Irish companies appeared in such profusion that they dominated the 69th & 75th Regiments, & were included in the 10th, 11th, 14th, & 70th Regiments, while several maintained their independence of the state militia.
The significance of the immigrant military companies is evident in the fact that in 1853 more than 4,000 of the 6,000 uniformed militia in N.Y. City were of foreign birth. Of these, 2,600 were Irish & 1,700 German.
In parades, when the men of the Napper Tandy Light Artillery Company marched in their green jackets with yellow braid, light-blue trousers with scarlet stripe, & blue caps with braid & tassel, they never failed to win the admiring applause of the Irish onlookers, especially the ladies.
- Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y. City, chap. XI

In the years of the heavy Irish migration, just before the Civil War, military companies were extremely popular in the U.S., and every important immigrant [group] had them. They satisfied a love for military drill, gaudy uniforms, & display; but above all they provided an excuse for arranging many a convivial occasion that gratified the social instincts of a good-natured, friendly, hospitable, & patriotic people. Irish militia companies under various names - such as "Jasper Greens," "Hibernian Greens," "Napper Tandy Light Artillery," "Emmett Guards," "Irish Rifles," & "Jackson Guards" - sprang up even in the smaller towns & attracted much newspaper comment by their frequent parading. Some served valiantly in the Mexican War, although most of them were organized in the following decade.
In 1853 the Irish militia of N.Y. City numbered 2,6000 [2,600 or 26,000?]... The 4th of July was an especially popular day for parades. It was then that visits were exchanged between companies in different cities, accompanied with much conviviality & banqueting. Parades & balls seemed to be especially appropriate, too, on St. Patrick's Day. On these occasions the parades were generally reviewed by majors & the city councils, and at the banquets the toasts were eloquent & the punch-bowls full.
- Carl Wittke, We Who Built America, p. 144-45


Molly M


[see also Life in America - Coal Mines]

Pennsylvania coal-mining region -
Difficulties faced law enforcement during the 1862-64 period. Much of the crime centered around the Irish group, & the age-old desire to protect members of the clan came into play. The fact that false swearing for alibis was perjury was little or no deterrent, & any accused Irishman could depend on his friends for whatever testimony was needed to absolve him. Coupled with this was a marked reluctance on the part of the populace to testify against an Irishman for fear of reprisals. Already the name of "Molly Maguire" struck fear into the hearts of many - an unreasoning fear that stopped not to ask whether there was in fact such a secret society. There were enough coffin notices, mob action, & ambushes to give a ring of truth to the allegations.
- Ibid., p. 107

A series of trials were held in Mauch Chunk2 in late-1876; three were found guilty of 1st-degree murder & sentenced to be hanged. Old cases were dug up - by far the most important - the oldest case of all - took place over 14 years before, in 1862. The murdered man was [mine foreman] Frank Langdon. For this murder John Kehoe was found guilty & sentenced to be hanged.
The first of the 10 condemned men were scheduled to be hanged on June 21, 1877, six at Pottsville, four at Mauch Chunk. Ten men hanged in one day. And down to today that terrible day of retribution is bitterly remembered among the survivors of the hanged men, both in the Penn. coal fields & in Ireland. Among the McGehan clan in Co. Donegal the story is still told of the families gathered around the kitchen table on that day in 1877 to pray for Hugh, & at the moment he was on the gallows the sky blackened as if by an eclipse over the bogs of Glen Fin.
- Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., The M. M.

One Donegal oldster said of the Mollies, "They had their good & their bad points... Here in the Glenies mountains3 where I was born & brought up the men & women spent most of their time in bare feet, they were so poor... They used to hold meetings in secret all over the place in different centers. A meeting would be held this month in this town & next month in [a] townland 10 mi. away, one or two men from each district would attend... They never fixed punishment locally for a local person. They always got strangers to do this, & when any dirty job was to be done, it was strangers that was brought in to do it... They didn't want anyone to take advantage of the poor... At the start a whole lot of people had respect for them... In the end they became very cruel."
The Molly Maguires were well-known in Donegal - feared & respected, and remembered vividly. A Donegal emigrant leaving for America during the 1840s or 1850s would not likely forget that name.
- Broehl, The Molly Maguires, chap. 2
"These Molly Maguires are generally stout, active young men, dressed up in women's clothing, with faces blackened or otherwise disguised."
- Ibid., p. 54


Shamrock Friendly Association

The Irish immigration of 1816 was centered in the U.S. & the Maritime Provinces [of Canada]. As the numbers of newcomers increased, contractors found that they could not employ all the hands offered. N.Y. became congested with workers without jobs or resources who were obliged to seek charity from their more fortunate fellow countrymen. The leaders of the Irish community formed the Shamrock Friendly Association, which gave temporary assistance & tried through correspondence & newspaper publicity to find opportunities for employment in the interior.
- Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Migration, p. 84


1 Sentence fragment in original.

2 Mauch Chunk ("Bear Mountain"), Pennsylvania. In the early 1950s the town was renamed "Jim Thorpe," in honor of the famous Native American athlete.

3 Glentie - a town 15 miles from Burton Port in County Donegal.