“When people refer to the famine, most of the Irish see it as a genocide,” O’Connell explained. “It was the Great Hunger. They were exporting more food from Ireland than they are today, yet the Irish Catholics were dying and their teeth would be stained green because the only thing they could even try and eat was the grass. It was the British government starving the people who weren’t allowed to eat the food on their land except for the potatoes, and it was land that the British stole from us.”
But despite promises of religious freedom, the Irish found that United States was also hostile to Catholicism, under the guise of patriotism.
Since colonial times, Americans had been suspect of Catholics from all immigrant groups, suspicious that their allegiances to the Pope would trump their loyalty to the U.S.
“Like any immigrant group, when you were new in the U.S., you were low on the totem pole, you were the ones abused and beaten and robbed and not given good jobs,” O’Connell said.
“And people didn’t understand Catholicism, so they would prevent you from practicing your religion. So if you were having a Mass, they would beat up or often kill the priest … so the Hibernians would stay outside or wherever they were, and stand guard. Back in those days that’s what you did, you stood outside and protected the life of your priest, and that was the only way you could continue practicing your religion,” he said.
The Hibernians also helped their own to overcome discrimination when they were looking for housing and employment. In 1894, the Daughters of Erin, which eventually became the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, was founded in order to protect young Irish immigrant women in the United States.
The Hibernians today
A strong Irish Catholic identity, forged in the overcoming of numerous adversities, can still be felt strongly in many parts of the United States, and is what bonds the Hibernians together today.
Marilyn Madigan, the National Treasurer for the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, said the camaraderie among the early Hibernians can still be felt strongly in the organization today.
“It’s the best organization I’ve ever belonged to, we’re like a second family,” she said.
Madigan said one of the most important things the orders do today, besides their Catholic charitable work, is to help undocumented Irish immigrants in the United States, of whom there are an estimated 50,000. Most of them entered the country legally, but are now here on overstayed visas.
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Fears and anxiety are even higher among this group after the election of President Donald Trump, who promised to crack down on illegal immigration.
“There are a lot of undocumented Irish in this country, and most of the Irish organizations do work to try to document those Irish, so we haven’t forgotten where we came from, we hold that country dear to our hearts, as well as our religion,” Madigan said. In fact, the two are really inextricably linked.
“Most of the famine Irish were Catholic, their religion was taken away from them, they had to go to Masses behind rocks, so our Irish and Catholic heritage is very important,” she said.
Because the orders are non-profit groups, they do not engage in any kind of lobbying for Irish immigration, and they also declined to comment politically on the immigration situation of other undocumented immigrants in the United States.
A completely free and independent Ireland is another cause near and dear to the Hibernian heart, and the group hopes to see a peaceful and legal reunification of the country soon, though Brexit has raised some doubts.
“We’re very involved with Brexit, the fear is that we could see a return to a hard border between the North and the Republic,” O’Connell explained. Ireland and Northern Ireland (the six northern counties that still belong to the U.K.) have enjoyed relatively open borders since the 1990s, to the benefit of both countries’ economies, he added. Several members of the order will be travelling to Europe to voice their support for an open border.