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.
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.
The diversity of causes that the order supports and the faith that undergirds it continues to tie them together, O’Connell said.
“The culture, the music, the song, that brings us all together, and it’s kind of like with a family … and it’s driven by being Catholic. There’s not another Irish group in the country that has that diversity, and that’s why we’re so strong.”
But membership is waning. The women’s and men’s orders combined have a membership of about 80,000 in the U.S., at a generous estimate. It’s something that has both O’Connell and Madigan concerned.
“It seems like the younger generations do not join organizations like we have in the past,” Madigan said. “It seems like the younger generation, while they’re proud of their heritage, they don’t join, or they may join or not be as active.”
“We’re trying to do a better job of welcoming people who are younger than 60,” O’Connell said.
“We’re in the process of really kicking off what’s going to be a several-year membership campaign. We’ve never really done that before, and we realize how many people say, ‘I don’t know anything about this, why don’t I?’”
What a Hibernian wants you to know about St. Patrick's Day
While you might think you’d find a Hibernian dressed in green and drinking steadily like the stereotypical St. Patrick’s Day celebrant, there are a few things the Hibernians wish the general population understood about the holiday.
“First and foremost, to a true Irishman, St. Patrick’s Day is a feast day,” Madigan said.
“We start out with Mass, with the majority of us participating in parades prior to or on the day itself, where we highlight our Irish heritage.”
Getting drunk, she said, is not part of the plan.
“The things that upset me the most is that people think it’s just a day to go out and celebrate and imbibe in alcoholic beverages, and maybe be overserved,” she said.
“They wear shirts that are very denigrating to the Irish, making us look like we’re a race of drunks. We’re not, we’re a proud irish race that has spread Christianity throughout the world through our missionaries. And I don’t think that the general public really sees what we do.”
O’Connell said that he is also “very disturbed” by the T-shirts and decorations that denigrate the Irish.
“What I try to tell people when I talk to them about it, is I say change it to a different nationality, change it to a different race … can you imagine?”
St. Patrick's Day is also an Irish-American holiday, he added. We eat corned beef and cabbage because that’s what the Irish immigrants in America ate because they couldn’t afford other cuts of meat. They wanted to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in a big way because they wanted to feel close to their Irish heritage. It wasn’t until recently that the holiday became anything more than any other feast day in Ireland, and they only started holding big celebrations for tourism purposes.
Still, he said, it’s hard to completely blame those who want to be Irish for a day.
“Being Irish is just so much fun.”
This article was originally published March 17, 2017.