Root and branch: Norman Freeman on the Irish National Foresters

A friendly society

An elaborate, framed scroll hung on the kitchen wall of my grandparent’s cottage in Omeath. In the centre was an oval space with handwritten sentences that certified that John Wynne, my grandfather, was a member of the Irish National Foresters.

On each side of the certificate section stood a man dressed in green cutaway jacket, knee-length white breeches and wearing long black leather boots. Each wore a black hat with a white feathery cockade on top. They were resolutely holding what seemed like a pike. They stood against an intricate depiction of branches and vegetation.

The Irish National Foresters had little to do with forestry. It was what was called a friendly society. Such bodies flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Ireland and Britain. Their aim was to provide aid to any of its members whose working lives might be adversely affected by sickness. Membership was largely composed of men who had a skill or trade or some small business.

The benefit system was something akin to an insurance arrangement. Members of the INF paid a weekly subscription. If they found themselves out of work due to illness, they would receive a weekly allowance along with medical attention and medicines. The society came into being at a time when the British government felt it had no responsibility for the health and well-being of ordinary citizens, including those in Ireland.


The Irish National Foresters was formed in 1877. Most of the members were originally part of the larger British benefit society called The Ancient Order of Foresters. Many in that society might have sympathised with the national aspirations of their Irish counterparts. However, it was felt that the leadership supported British imperialism, was hostile to Irish nationalism and was anti-Catholic.

The new organisation became the largest and most influential of such bodies in this country. It had the support or the Catholic hierarchy. The big banners carried in parades and on festive occasions often had a recognisably Catholic church or building as background. The influx of Irish workers into Scotland led to the founding of branches there. The INF followed the Irish diaspora to places as far away as Australia.

It had a distinctly nationalist flavour. It adopted a dress uniform of the kind depicted on the membership certificate. This was referred to as the “Emmet” costume, resembling the clothes worn by the patriot at the time of his trial and execution.

It grew steadily and by 1914 there were hundreds of branches around the country, with a quarter of a million members. By all accounts it was a very well-managed society. It became part of the weft and weave of Irish life. its membership expanded to include many strands of the populace. It gained some political and economic influence.

It had enough funds to build or buy or rent good buildings in most towns and even villages. The Foresters’ Halls, as they were called, became centres for community meetings and entertainments.

Then, from the first decades of the 20th century, successive governments, including those of the new Irish State, began to make some provision, however meagre, for the care of its citizens. It was called social welfare and, over the years, it provided greater support.

The role of the INF became less relevant, although its strong traditions ensured some branches and halls continued as social clubs. There is one such survivor in Tullamore.

However, the John Mitchell branch of the INF in Newry – named after the patriot – is still an active presence there. It has gathered an impressive collection of mementoes of the time when the Foresters played an important role in the civic life of the town and nearby district.

At the start of the 20th century, it was responsible for the building of a modest but elegant hall in Omeath. Our grandfather was one of its trustees until it was handed over to the parish in 1950. He was a skilled iron-worker. In his forge, he repaired ploughs and other iron farming implements. As well as shoeing horses, he shaped railings and gates from wrought iron, some remarkably decorative. A few are still in place.

The Foresters’ Hall in Omeath, strikingly painted in bright colours, is now one of the notable buildings to be seen on the Cooley Peninsula.