St. Patrick’s Day is a time to remember the saint's “tremendous love” for the Irish people, says the head of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a U.S. fraternal organization.
St. Patrick “had had such a widespread impact on Irish spirituality and Irish culture, the direction that the nation took,” group president Brendan Moore told CNA March 12.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians is a U.S.-based Irish-American Catholic fraternal organization with over 80,000 members in 46 U.S. states, Canada and Ireland. One of its inspirations is St. Patrick, whose feast day is observed March 17, this Sunday.
The saint was born in Romanized Britain in the late fourth century. While a teenager, he was captured and enslaved by Irish raiders. He lived as a shepherd before he escaped and returned home.
He then returned as a missionary and became known for his life of sacrifice, prayer and fasting. Although he was not the first Christian missionary to Ireland, he is widely regarded as the most successful.
Moore said St. Patrick’s Day is a “tremendous day of celebration” not only of the saint, but also of the achievements of the Irish people in the U.S.
In addition to the holiday’s spiritual dimension, he said St. Patrick’s Day is “a day of sharing our culture, of which we are most proud.” He noted the quality of Irish music and dance and Irish accomplishment in sports and other areas.
Hibernians often mark the day by taking part in parades, holding dance exhibitions, and hosting pipe bands. They also hold special St. Patrick’s Day Masses for their members and invite non-members to attend.
Moore, the son of Irish immigrants, said St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland is traditionally a religious holiday.
“There was very little of the celebration that we know in the public venue today in the United States,” he explained.
Moore lamented what he said is “a creeping deterioration” of the meaning of St. Patrick’s Day that can degrade it in the eyes of some Irish-Americans.
For example, the emphasis on heavy drinking, he said, “overshadows the day.” He noted that this has helped perpetuate stereotypes in “some very, very offensive materials.”
These include sweatshirts and t-shirts being produced by major brands “that really should know better,” Moore said.
The Hibernians in particular object to some clothing sold by Spencer's, Urban Outfitters and Wal-Mart that associates the Irish and St. Patrick’s Day with drunkenness.
Moore said the Hibernians reject negative portrayals of the Irish and any other ethnic or religious group.
He also voiced hope that the good in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations outweighs the bad.
Moore said that his order encourages its members to show charity to “everyone we meet,” a reflection of the Hibernians’ principles of friendship, unity and Christian charity.
“In addition to that, I think we’re charged with the responsibility to recognize around us that there are terrible needs in society and that we are required to reach out to those in need,” he told CNA.
The organization particularly focuses on hunger relief. At the Hibernians’ founding in New York City in 1836, members helped Irish immigrants who were leaving their ships to the U.S. in a state of starvation with nowhere to go.
When Hurricane Sandy struck the northeastern U.S. in late October 2012, an estimated 500 Hibernian members were among the many victims.
The Hibernians launched a special relief fund, collected supplies and sent in squads of volunteers in what Moore said was a “tremendous effort” to help repair the damage.
“We were kind of overwhelmed, both with the response of our membership in terms of donations and assistance, and also with the applications for help that poured in,” Moore said.
The organization has received about 250 applications for assistance and has distributed close to $250,000 in direct aid. Hibernian volunteers from places like Albany, far from the coasts, still travel to help clean homes. Some are still surveying storm victims to see what their needs are.
Moore said the Hibernians are growing as an organization at a time when many other groups’ member rolls are stagnant or shrinking.
“In many areas of the country, we seem to be attracting members who are in their 20s and 30s. Oftentimes they are young professionals.”
The men Hibernians recently launched a new division in Dubuque, Iowa. In Texas a new division will launch soon In Houston and discussions are underway for a new division in Dallas.
Divisions in Virginia have increased by 20 percent and there are as many as nine divisions in South Carolina.
Membership in the Ancient Order of Hibernians is open to Catholic men age 16 or older of Irish descent. The Ladies' Ancient Order of Hibernians is a separately-run partner organization for Irish-American Catholic women.