Irish Catholic body in US moves to open doors to women after nearly 200 years

Ancient Order of Hibernians plans led to rift with leadership of parallel women’s organisation

After nearly 200 years, one of the main Irish organisations in the United States is considering proposals to open its doors to women.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, which was originally established to defend Irish Catholic immigrants in the US before the famine, will decide on whether to end its male-only membership rules at a conference in Pennsylvania this July.

However, the plan to admit women are being opposed by the leadership of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians (LAOH) which, although having a largely shared history and goals, is completely separate and runs in parallel to the men’s organisation.

Essentially the leadership of the LAOH sees allowing women into the AOH as being detrimental to its own organisation. It also argues women who joined the AOH would not be treated as equal members.

It told the AOH by letter last September it viewed the sudden dropping of that organisation’s gender requirement “as an act of sabotage on the LAOH’s recruitment and ongoing growth”.

Disappointed

The AOH has about 30,000 members across the United States. However, membership is ageing and numbers have fallen by about 20 per cent over the last decade. In addition, it has seen some politicians reluctant to engage with an organisation that permits only men to join.

Danny O’Connell, AOH current national president, said he was disappointed at the reaction of the women’s organisation. He told The Irish Times: “I can confirm the AOH are evaluating removing the male gender restriction from our membership requirements. I was disappointed by the reaction from the leadership of the LAOH and the apparent campaign to undermine this effort.

“I’m hopeful the LAOH leadership and membership moving forward will embrace a proposal that would give women residing in America another opportunity to embrace their Irish heritage”.

Supporters of the new initiative believe allowing women to join would not only increase membership but also reduce the age profile which is now believed to be over 50 on average. They believe younger men are also reluctant in some cases to be associated with an organisation that does not admit women.

Mr O'Connell is scheduled to be in Ireland this week where it is expected he will meet senior politicians including Tánaiste Leo Varadkar today.

Former Fine Gael TD John Deasy is head of government affairs with the AOH. He said the decision on whether or not to allow women to join the organisation would be made by the AOH's membership.

“However, there’s no getting away from the fact that male or female-only restrictions are viewed as outdated and unacceptable in Ireland today.”

The AOH traces its history to 1836 when it was established in New York and later in Philadelphia as a Catholic immigrant organisation. Originally it had two objectives; to protect the clergy and those who had arrived from Ireland into a hostile environment for Irish Catholics in the United States at the time.

Its constitution stipulates applicants for membership must be male, be able to prove Irish ancestry and be a practising Catholic.

It also has broader political objectives urging the introduction of "an equitable US immigration law for Ireland" and played a central role in drawing up a bi-partisan resolution adopted by the US House of Representatives in March urging the British government to scrap plans to grant an amnesty for all Troubles-era killings in Northern Ireland.

Some close to the AOH maintain that at the time of its foundation virtually all organisations were dominated by men. As it was a secret society there are not many records available setting out the background to the rule.

In the mid-1890s an AOH women’s auxiliary was established. This title was dropped in the 1980s and the men’s and women’s organisations formally separated in 2012.

LAOH national president Karen Keane told The Irish Times the "divorce" came about following a tax audit by US revenue authorities. She said at the time the AOH leadership argued that the women's organisation had nothing to do with it.

Similar

The constitution of the women's organisation is broadly similar to that of the AOH. Its membership is also confined to practising Catholic women of Irish birth or ancestry as well as to the wife or mother of an AOH member. It aims to "foster and sustain loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church and foster and sustain loyalty to the United States of America among its members".

Keane said the LAOH membership, which had been declining up to the end of 2019, had turned around. It has just over 10,000 members, an increase of five per cent over the last year or so.

The LAOH was more of a “boots on the ground” organisation, she said, and it did not spend its money on lobbying politicians but in local areas, for example assisting women to keep their babies.

“We talk about universal day care, universal child care so women who keep their children can afford to keep them in education.”

Ms Keane said her organisation was against the AOH admitting women members “because in all honesty women will not be treated . . . equal members if they join the AOH.”