The Rising of 1798 was brutally put down so that the Irish might never think of rising again. Although it succeeded in putting an end to the larger organized rebel societies like the Defenders and United Irishmen, the spirit of opposition to rents, tithes and taxes still prevailed among the oppressed Irish tenantry and smaller, clandestine societies continued to operate against the landlords.
These local societies were called by many names such as Whiteboys, for the means they chose to identify themselves on night raids, to Levelers, for their tactic of filling in the ditches used by landlords to enclose their cattle. The leveling of ditches enabled the tenants to scatter the cattle and, although the landlord was usually able to round up a large portion of his scattered herd in a few days, some of the lucky tenants quietly enjoyed beef stew for a while. There were also those known as Rapparees, for the Rapaire or half-pike which they carried, and Ribbon-Men, so called because their badge was two pieces of green and red ribbon.
In the early 1800s, these secret societies began to coalesce in local support and the Ribbonmen gradually became dominant. They exercised a limited control and established ‘the goods’ (passwords and signs) so that traveling members, or members on the run, would be recognized and assisted by distant branches of the society. The ‘goods’ also provided security from infiltration. Then, as the economy plunged and government opposition increased many members became part of a wave of emigration that soon reached 50,000 a year headed for the promised security of employment in the mines of Newcastle, the mills of Glasgow and the docks of Liverpool. Sadly, they settled in the slums of those cities where many fell victim to successive typhus epidemics leaving their children to grow with no future but a life of labor in the mills and mines of England.
It was at this time that the secret societies began to morph from anti-landlord agitation to fraternal support. In the days before labor unions, insurance and unemployment assistance, these societies provided medical and funeral benefits to members from a common fund maintained by member’s dues. The common fund also provided for legal expenses for members in trouble. A man on the run need only seek out a group of Irishmen and when asked what he sought, his coded answer, unique handshake and/or specific gesture identified him as a member and he was guided to the ‘Parish Master’ as the officer in charge was known. There he would be advised on dwelling, employment and even provided a stipend to tide him over until he could repay the fund. In this way, these societies became history’s earliest insurance organizations, but despite their benevolent activities, the heart of their existence remained the protection of tenants, the Roman Catholic clergy and a free and independent Ireland which put them squarely at odds with the English government. A government ban on ‘Ribbon’ societies as well as Church opposition to secret societies led many to publicly adopt such names as the St. Patrick’s Fraternal Society and the Hibernian Benevolent Society while maintaining their original purpose. Then came a call from across the western sea.
America was being hailed as a virtual land of opportunity in need of strong backs to extend her canals and railroads westward and many Irish answered the call. Between 1815 and 1845, a third of all cross-Atlantic traffic was Irish as a million fled to north America. Of that million the majority went to Canada, but between 1825 and 1840, 220,000 Irish emigrated to the U.S. Many of those immigrants brought the idea of benevolent and patriotic secret societies with them and they grew, but not without opposition.
A strong anti-Irish Catholic element had existed in America as part of the legacy of English colonial days which were less than a generation in the past. As the number of Irish immigrants rose, nativist prejudice became more violent and attacks on Irish Catholics and clergy multiplied indicating the need for a more defensive society in America. In the mid-1830s communication between members of benevolent societies in America and their former societies across the ocean provided the answer. In March of 1836, members of Pennsylvania’s Hibernian Benevolent Society traveled to New York to meet with members of the St. Patrick’s Fraternal Society – both of whom were Ribbon Society branches in America – with the intent of forming a national organization. What was discussed at that meeting can only be surmised, especially since more and similar societies began to join the growing new organization. What can be determined however, is that the groups eventually adopted a common name and an American persona while retaining the heart of their existence – protection of the Roman Catholic Church and clergy and a free and independent Ireland.
In short order the Ancient Order of Hibernians was born in America and although some of the societies across the blue highway home also adopted the name, the American organization eventually established their independence from the Irish ribbon society and the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America became the latest link in the evolution of ancient secret societies that defended faith and fatherland since the Celtic twilight.