Leaders of 19 groups from across the six counties joined at the Houben Centre in Belfast last Saturday, April 1 to receive Freedom for All Ireland (FFAI) grants, and to describe their work to Irish Americans across the United States in a live webinar broadcast.

Among this year’s FFAI Christmas appeal grant recipients were justice campaigners, ex-political prisoners groups, organizations preserving the graves and memorials of Irish patriots, cultural, heritage, and cross-community groups, the AOH said afterward.

AOH leaders traveled to Belfast, following a St. Patrick’s Day week, in which the AOH hosted Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and voiced crucial concerns about the British legacy cover-up bill in meetings with Irish and British officials and northern party leaders.

AOH National President Danny O’Connell opened the event by saying, "The AOH is here today distributing a record-shattering $160,000, contributed by AOH members across the United States in a special Christmas appeal to support work for Freedom for all Ireland.

"When we raised $100,000 a year ago people said it would never happen again. Our members said it would never happen again because we will be raising much higher amounts and this year is the first example of what they meant!"

AOH Freedom for All Ireland Chairman Martin Galvin said, "We are able to award these grants because of you, the groups here with us today and the inspiration you give us in America.

"Our members hear you and see the work you do for freedom for all Ireland, and want to stand behind you, whether by being a voice for you in Washington or standing behind you financially as we do today."

Recipient Relatives for Justice was represented by Mark Thompson who said, "The AOH has been vital to our work for relatives of victims. We see the British pushing through an amnesty bill of shame to bury the truth about those murdered by or in collusion with British crown forces, and it means so much to know that the AOH is behind us in Washington, able to get Congressional and Senate support for us as well as making donations that are vital to what RFJ does.

"You led the way in urging the Irish government to take Britain to the European Court if they pass the amnesty bill."

Fellow recipient Maeve McLaughlin of the Bloody Sunday Trust said: "The Bloody Sunday families have spent decades fighting for justice which would include having British soldiers face court for the murder and attempted murders of peaceful civil rights marchers.

"The AOH has been with us for much of that fight and we welcome your help and support today, as our fight for justice continues."

Frankie Quinn of EALU, a Tyrone support group for former political prisoners, described the vital job training and counseling EALU is able to provide for ex-prisoners with AOH help, and how psychological counseling is now being offered to the children as well as to these prisoners, because of the psychological impact of having a parent imprisoned. 

Joe Austin accepted the grant for Belfast National Graves and described how the AOH and Irish America had always been there for Irish Republicans:  "Easter week and the Easter commemorations are a special time for the families of Irish patriots who died during the conflict, when families honor their memory.

"It is especially important that these grieving families can see that the graves and memory of their fallen loved ones is cherished and honored. The AOH contribution is a major help to us."

Niall Murphy, speaking for first-time applicant Ireland’s Future said, "I have personally admired the work, solidarity, and understanding of the AOH and their assistance to groups supporting victims and survivors of the conflict here. I have witnessed their political connections in America and how crucial that has been to reaching the Congress and Senate on Irish issues."

Perhaps the loudest cheer of the afternoon was given when the representative of the Greater New Lodge Cultural was introduced "as the man who had a New York street named for him while inside a New York prison-Joe Doherty."

Doherty talked about the continuing impact of years of struggle on an area like the New Lodge community in Belfast and the work his group does particularly with young people in the area.

Bogside artist Tom Kelly, which created and maintains the gallery of iconic political murals in Derry’s Bogside, talked about the importance of the AOH donation to preserve these historic images and their message. 

Paul Wilson recounted the long association between the AOH and Green Cross, from the days when Green Cross gave needed weekly payments to the families of political prisoners, through its present mission of aiding bereaved families.

Duchas Oriall spokesperson Fiona Johnston described how South Armagh had been demonized during the conflict, but her committee was working to restore the reputation of South Armagh as an ancient Irish seat of culture and history.

Eamon Hanna of Tyrone National Graves talked about the work being done on the graves and memorials of Irish Patriots across Tyrone and neighboring counties. The director of the St. Patrick Center in County Down, Tim Campbell described their plans to preserve the heritage and memory of St. Patrick. 

Ballymurphy Massacre Campaign leader John Teggart said the campaign is building a memorial to the 10 people including a Catholic priest and a grandmother, murdered by British.

Other successful grant recipients were the O’Neill-Allsopp Memorial Band, Martin McGuinness Peace Foundation, the Witness Project, and cross-community groups, including Bridges Beyond Boxing, Omagh Choir, and Omagh Thunder Basketball.

Father Gary Donegan, whose Passionate Peace and Reconciliation Centre hosted the event, was the final recipient and talked about working for reconciliation in Ardoyne.

Others at the event included Malachy McAllister, New York State AOH President John Manning, New York State FFAI Chair Vince Tyer, and former state director Brian Kelly.

*This column first appeared in the April 5 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.