History of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in New Jersey

The Ancient Order of Hibernians in the United States can trace its origins back to New York City on 4 May 1836. From here the organization became popular on both a neighborhood and state level including a well represented and passionate presence in the Garden State over the last several decades. The founding of the AOH during this era came to the fore in large measure to protect the Catholic populace from harm, especially members of the clergy and parishes from hostile Nativists who wished to destroy symbols of the faith. Protection against the attack on St. Mary’s, Newark and threats on other Catholic edifices in Jersey City during the 1840s led the Hibernians to fight back American Protection Association aggressors in turn. This motivation combined with a strong mutual support system among survivors of An Gorta Mor led to an even more practical need for the AOH to build stability in the name of beneficence. The perpetual call to service, cultural awareness, and spiritual identity is especially true in New Jersey as Hibernians have been an active and proud presence since the burgeoning days of this organization.

The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Newark occurred in 1834 and six years later the AOH had established itself within this city according to eminent historians John O’Dea and John T. Ridge who verified this milestone. A surge in Irish representation from the seventeenth century forward was gradual, but exploded during the mid-1800s as many came from agrarian roots and soon adapted to a more brick and mortar existence as early Hibernian labor among the laity built the Delaware and Raritan Canal and dotted the state from Western Jersey to the Hudson River and inhabited the urban enclaves of the Ironbound in Newark, Horseshoe of Jersey City and the Forth Ward of Trenton and in close knit neighborhoods across Paterson, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Bayonne and other prominent towns and cities.

During the mid-century point, individual trailblazers including Owen Tracey (Camden), Patrick Long (Hudson County), and James Mulqueen (Newark) were part of the national convention and brought wider awareness of state AOH activities beyond the 21 counties of New Jersey. Also within this span, the Newark division (1859) forwarded delegates to the Convention of Irish Societies (the retired name of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee) further building Hibernian advocacy in the process. Their Weehawken brethren also attended this event and served as a host site for the state convention in 1862. Around this time period, additional immigration treks across the Atlantic Ocean led to a sharply increased Hibernian presence especially throughout the northern reaches of New Jersey. In fact, by 1860 the Irish made up over half of the foreign born population in the Garden State. Once settled in New Jersey, during the late nineteenth century political clubs and mutual aid societies such as the AOH along with home, parish, and public house became places where relationships were joined and solidified. Aside from migration, the Irish became role models in action. Part of the growth and public stature of the Irish came through participation in the American Civil War as several hundred Hibernians from New Jersey served in the Union Army. This became a prelude to arms, as many subsequent AOH members followed their national flag in later conflicts, most notably the Great War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and others. However, within the immediate post-war return to civilian life even with the creation of Hibernian Rifles clubs (such as one established in Newark by 1874), these supporters of keeping the spirit of Ireland alive led to a concerted boom in active AOH participation statewide.

Typical events that promoted bonding among members included annual picnics, socials, and dances along with regular sojourns to parades and other state sanctioned organizational events. An abundance of milestones marked this next era. Research uncovered by Ridge shows that by 1872 the wards of Jersey City featured nine divisions, a four fold increase over the previous year while Newark sported five parallel divisions of its own. Additional division charters were ratified at Franklin Furnace organized on June 22, 1872 (and soon thereafter drafted its own cornet band to herald its existence in musical form), Ogdenburgh, South Orange, Woodbridge and Red Bank organized in February of 1875 for example. By the Centennial observance of the United States, the AOH lines had extended to 14 different counties (Bergen, Camden, Essex, Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex, Union, and Warren) with combined membership rosters nearing the 4,000 mark.

In 1877, Jersey City became an important center of AOH activity as they co-hosted a parade in honor of former General In-Chief of the Union Army and New Jersey Governor General George McClellan. The main force behind this event was grand marshal John Hart of Hudson County who became the head delegate among all Hibernian divisions throughout the United States and was re-elected to this post in both 1878 and 1879. The labors and advocacy displayed by Hart also led to a milestone in having the AOH national headquarters transplanted from New York City for the first time ever during his term in office due to his long standing loyalty ties to home and duty.

According to the 1884 AOH informational directory, a clearer charting of documented geographical centers with a single, or multiple divisions that dotted state atlases included Rutherford, Franklin Furnace, Hampton Junction, Trenton, Trenton-Chambersburg, Mount Hope, Hibernia, Mine Hill, South Amboy, Perth Amboy, New Brunswick, Oxford (2), Philipsburg, Paterson (3), Passaic, Elizabeth (3), Rahway, Plainfield, Newark (7), Orange, South Orange, Montclair, Jersey City (11), Hoboken (3), Centreville, Bergen Point, and Bayonne. The detailed contributions of each legacy and currently operating unit alike helps build a valuable historical record. For example, National AOH Historian, Michael McCormick provides an expert account of development in Montclair from its burgeoning foundations through its halcyon days later in the nineteenth century. As McCormick chronicled:

The Irish have maintained a strong presence in the area around Montclair and Essex County over the years. In 1856, when Father John Hogan, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Belleville, founded Immaculate Conception Parish in Montclair, most of his parishioners were Irish and the neighborhood was known as “Irishtown.” In fact, nearby Montague Place was referred to as “Irish Hill”. The strong and proud history of Ancient Order of the Hibernians in Montclair heralds back to 1885, when the group was formally organized with its first charter. Founding members included President Christopher Flood, and officers James McGlynn, Peter Keigher, Hugh Brady and Owen Feeney. Division 9’s dedication to Catholic charity and Irish community leadership has defined the organization’s existence since inception. When Immaculate Conception built a new church in 1892, AOH members proudly led the parade for its dedication. Records from 1897 show that the Montclair Hibernians met at AOH Hall, Montclair, NJ at 8pm on the first Thursday of each month.

Other places within New Jersey have their own stories that have been documented and being uncovered over time. Included is Hibernian activity within the capitol city of Trenton printed inside a 1929 history by author Elma L. Johnston. The full story of AOH affiliation also involves a continued look at parochial and global interests alike from a variety of sources.

Among all divisions, political advocacy came further to the fore during the 1880s and 1890s as the English were called to task for their treatment of the Irish and funds collected to support the Home Rule movement back in their homeland. This was among the issues that entered the conscience of the 3,263 members who lived throughout New Jersey by 1894. This ranked them sixth geographically among all states (only Connecticut, New York Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Ohio had more) that hosted any AOH divisions within their respective borders. Their largesse was also evident as the AOH Chair at Catholic University of America established that same year showed that $2,447.25 was forthcoming from all Garden State divisions total.

Beyond financial collections, since 1884 there had been a split in the Hibernian family between two factions known as the Americanists and the Erin branch with each having its own respective philosophical approaches to administration. Over a decade later, Bishop James Augustus McFaul of Trenton served as peace maker and wrote a document that ultimately outlined peace plans between rival factions within the organization that came as a result of influence from Charles Stewart Parnell and the Land League which made its way to North America. More information on this document written on December 11, 1897 can be read within the following text

By the twentieth century, the AOH directory of 1904 outlined in more precise detail geography and statistics that show how the organization progressed statewide. This divisional roster read as follows: Atlantic City, Moorestown, Burlington, Bordentown, Florence, Riverton, Camden (3), Gloucester, Millville, Newark (8), Sayreville, Bloomfield, Belleville, Orange (2), South Orange, Montclair (2), Jersey City (7), Harrison, Union, Bayonne (2), Junction, High Bridge, Lambertville, Trenton (6), South Amboy (2), Bound Brook, Elizabeth (4), Rahway, Plainfield, Roselle, Jamesburg, Perth Amboy, New Brunswick (3), Port Reading, Freehold, Keyport, Mount Hope, Hibernia, Wharton, Paterson (3), Salem, Franklin Furnace, and Philipsburg. The breakdown of membership for 1916 shows the following totals by county: Atlantic 137; Bergen 86; Burlington, 259; Camden, 362; Cumberland, 50; Gloucester, 19; Hudson, 2,228; Essex, 871; Hunterdon, 101; Mercer, 915; Middlesex, 359; Monmouth, 85; Morris, 426; Passaic, 109; Salem, 95; Warren, 134; Somerset, 26; and Union, 569 for a total of 6,829 members. A zenith was reached four years later as 89 divisions were in operation from Furnace (Sussex County) to Millville (Cumberland County) and many aforementioned others especially in Newark, Trenton, Elizabeth, and Hudson County were at their height of popularity at this time. However, it was not until the 1910s when New Jersey had its highest number of adherents and entered the top five in overall membership among all states in the union that hosted AOH activities.

Unfortunately, the number of those found in attendance registers from here ebbed and rose modestly over the next few decades, but between 1948 and 1960 a minor renaissance took place as a spike in AOH interest took place during the Kennedy era and Vatican II years. From here a solid membership core had entered the modern era and provides a continuum in keeping generations of Hibernians associated and engaged with the organization on many fronts. Counted among the units currently in place that either came into existence before the 1960s, or established incorporation afterwards (with founding dates in brackets where available) include the following standard bearers: Colonel David B Kelly-Middlesex County Division 1 (1887); Michael J. Delahunty-Essex County Division 9 (1900); St. Patrick-Somerset County Division 1 (1983); Commodore Barry-Gloucester County Division 1 (1990); Volunteer Patrick Torphy-Monmouth County Division 2 (1990); St. Oliver Plunkett-Monmouth County Division 16 (2002); Major Thomas B. McGuire Jr.-Burlington County Division 1 (2003); Father Solanus Casey-Bergen County Division 32 (2007); Officer Thomas McMeekin, Jr. Memorial Division-Atlantic City I (2012); Mike Doyle-Burlington County Division 4; James J Reilly-Cape May County Division 1; All Irish Martyrs-Cape May County Division 2; Father Mychal Judge-Hudson County Division 1; Monsignor Crean-Mercer County Division 1; Joe Cahill-Mercer County Division 10; John Cardinal O’Connor-Monmouth County Division 32; Father Duffy- Ocean County Division 2; John P. Holland-Ocean County Division 4; and Notre Dame-Passaic County 1.

Along with group dynamics, leadership is one of the important aspects when it comes to the continued development of the AOH statewide. Each Division has a historical legacy of devoted service among all members and the list of officers for each chapter is heralded by their administrative efforts. On the top level, a notable and distinguished ledger of State Board Presidents from New Jersey has left a distinguished lineage. Among those recorded in the annals of AOH history (with estimated dates of service and city/division of record where available) include: Thomas Reynolds, Jersey City (1884); John J. Clancy (1894); James F. Brennan, Jersey City (1903-05); John P. Dullard, Trenton (1907); Peter F. Kerwin, Paterson (1909); John J. Jennings (1925); James P. Monahan (1936-37), Raymond V. Ryan (1940s); Frank A. Tracey (1960-62); Eugene J. Byrne (1966-68); John F. Kelly (1958-60); Ford J. Weiss (1970s-1980); Bob Fastow (1968-70); James J. Tierney (1972-75) Francis J. Hogan (1975-80); Edward Cosgrove (1990); Tom Corcoran, Jack Crosson, Richard J. Cummings, Matthew R. Daly, Ralph Hodges, Jack M. Leahey, Bernard J. McCreesch (1964-66), Joseph Sullivan, Brian Phillips (1995-97), and Peter O’Neill (1997-99) who served prior to the current century and contributed to the organization beyond their chairships. Among those who led within the state ranks in recent years include the following individuals (with Division and tenure in brackets) – Jim MacFarland, Mercer 1 (1999-2001); William Young, Monmouth 32 (2001-05); Jack Sullivan, Monmouth 2 (2005-07); Jere Cole, Essex 9 (2007-2011); and Sean Pender, Mercer 1 (2011-Present).

On a larger scale, New Jersey Hibernians have also made their mark on a wider level in various important ways. Between 1852 and 1994 there have been three National Presidents. They include John Hart (1878-80) and Jeremiah O’Callaghan (1958-60) both of Jersey City and Michael J. Delahunty (1968-70) from Montclair. Outgoing President Seamus Boyle has ties to New Jersey and spends time between Philadelphia and North Wildwood having been active in state-based activities throughout his tenure between 2008-12. On the spiritual front, two members of the Catholic Hierarchy from the Archdiocese of Newark, Auxiliary Bishop James A. McNulty (1952-56) and Archbishop Thomas A. Boland (1958-60 and 1970-74) have previously served as AOH National Chaplains. Award winners chosen for the John F. Kennedy Medal from 1966 to the present include Joseph M. Brennan, Past Secretary of the New Jersey AOH (1968) and Archbishop Boland of Newark (1970). The Sean MacBride Humanitarian Award instituted in 1988 is bestowed bi-annually on an individual who is an advocate for the principles of fair employment and equality among the Irish Catholics of Northern Ireland. Congressman Chris Smith won the award in 2001 for his work in the peace process. On the literary front, there have also been a pair of individuals Thomas P.J. Barrett of Newark and John Leahy from Trenton who served as National Editors of the Hibernian Digest, the major publication of the AOH between 1968-69 and 1969-70 respectively.

The Garden State has been a desired gathering place at various times for the National AOH Convention. From the inaugural event up through 1878, the Hibernian Constitution called for all conventions to be held across the Hudson River (NYC), but in 1879 when Boston was chosen as a site some New Jersey Divisions chose not to attend, but in terms of compromise by 1880 when they met in Philadelphia, provisions were made to be more inclusive and from here on out members from our State agreed to the need be more cohesive and unified. The National Conventions were held at rotating sites since 1892 and the first in New Jersey was the famed Trenton Conference of June 27, 1898 held between the Taylor Opera House and St. Mary’s Cathedral under the guidance of Bishop McFaul. The lead in and more details on this milestone conference and the role of Bishop McFaul have been provided by Brother Michael Wallace in the following account:

The AOH National Convention of 1884 was held in Cleveland, Ohio. At this convention the national Constitution was modified to open the membership to any person who had one parent of Irish birth or descent. Prior to this time, membership required that a brother have both parents of Irish birth or descent. In addition, there remained a strong contingent of members who felt that all AOH National conventions should be held in NYC, and that all national officers must be residents of NYC (McGrath 71). These two positions forced a rift in the Order that would take almost 14 years to reconcile. The rift led to the formation of two new organizations: the AOH Board of Erin and the AOH Benevolent Society of America.

Various members from both organizations made various attempts to reconcile the two groups, all of them ending unsuccessfully. On February 16, 1897, a declaration was made from New Brunswick, New Jersey by the National Secretary of the AOH of America which stated that a committee was now given the power to act on behalf of that organization to work towards the unification of both groups. National President P.J. O’Conner of the AOH of America proposed that the 1898 National Convention be held in Boston. The committees from each group met in 1897 in Philadelphia in an attempt to reconcile prior to the 1898 convention, but the talks were unsuccessful in their attempt to unify both organizations. Realizing the impasse after this failing, leaders from both groups agreed to meet one last time and submit themselves to binding arbitration. The two committees met on 3rd August 1897 in Atlantic City, NJ, and agreed at the time that the Right Rev. James A. McFaul, Bishop of Trenton, act as the arbitrator in the case and he agreed to do this. (McGrath 207).

On December 11, 1897, after much deliberation, Bishop McFaul rendered his decision that would have an impact on the AOH in the United States down to the present day. He decided that membership in the Order should continue to be allowed to anyone who is of Irish birth or descent from either parent. He felt that this change was “necessary for the continuance, growth and prosperity of the organization in this country.” (McGrath 211). He went on to add: “Moreover, as the Irish have always been justly proud of the part taken by their heroic ancestors in the cause of church and motherland, during the dark ages of persecution, this organization will only be true to its best traditions when it cultivates and encourages the patriotic pulsations of every heart which circulates a single drop of Irish blood.” (McGrath 212)

Prior to this arbitration, both sides submitted their proposal for a respective site for the next convention. After the arbitration decision in 1897, it was clear that they would need to have one location for the next convention. Bishop McFaul requested that the location be close to his diocese given that he would need to be involved in the proceedings and did not want to leave his diocese during that busy time. He persuaded the groups to hold the 1898 National Convention in Trenton, NJ, whereby they would ratify the changes that Bishop McFaul had produced the previous year. The Convention would be held at Taylor’s Opera House in Trenton beginning on Monday, June 27th 1898 with the opening mass to be celebrated at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

It was at this event that the “Major Degree and its Ritual Content” was ratified. This document has been little changed over a century later. More information on the event proper can be found via the following.  Otherwise, the boardwalks of Atlantic City were another popular venue as Hibernians from across America met at the Jersey Shore in 1925, 1937, and 1952.

The Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians in New Jersey has also been extremely active over the years. Early organizations include the establishment of a group affiliated with Division 3, Montclair in 1903. Beyond local strides, the national organization met in 1913 at the LAOH conference held in Atlantic City where the National Vice-President was charged with developing junior divisions. Counted among past State Presidents include: Mary E. Cassidy, Camden (1905); Catherine E. Mahon, Elizabeth (1909) and Judy Quinn (2011-Present) along with others who served the organization well over the years.

The preservation of history including the works of historians outlined in the bibliography below, the outward support of heritage is another sign of preserving the importance of the AOH story. In 1989 for example, the Office of the National Historian sponsored a nation-wide campaign design to fund a proper display for the Fenian Ram, the prototype for the USS Holland, the first functioning submarine invented by John Philip Holland of Paterson by way of County Claire. On a wider scale and context, information highlighting the historical development of the Ancient Order of Hibernians can be found through following sites including their national homepage  and Catholic Encyclopedia (1911)  along with other resource guides.

Alan DeLozier,  NJAOH Historian

[* This essay and bibliography are a work in progress. Further information regarding all aspects of AOH history in New Jersey is always welcome. Please contact Alan DeLozier, State Historian at [email protected]<mailto:[email protected]> [(973) 275-2378] to contribute. Thank you in advance.]


Generous assistance has been provided by Mr. Michael Burke, Mr. Bob Carr, Mr. Sean Pender, and Mr. Michael Wallace to this essay.