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Fraternal organizations have a long history in America, and many of them – thousands, in fact – have their origins in ethnicity and the home land. As immigration increased into the New World, the need for these types of societies grew. New arrivals were welcomed and supported so that they would often settle in the embrace of the culture they left behind.
If you are researching your Irish ancestry, here are the top five fraternal societies you need to investigate. Was your ancestor a member? What archives and historical information might they have?
1. Ancient Order of Hibernians: an Irish Catholic society, it was founded in New York City in 1836, and continues to boast a large membership across the U.S. Although they have a tumultuous history – including infiltration of their branches by the Molly Maguires in the 1860s and 70s – they have always worked to benefit specifically Irish Catholic immigrants. They have experienced a bit of a revival in recent decades, and hold archive facilities in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Albany, NY, and Notre Dame, Indiana. You can learn more about this organization through numerous articles in the PERSI index (search for keyword “Hibernian”) or on their website.
2. Knights of Equity: Fighting discrimination, the Knights of Equity have been serving the Irish American community since its founding in 1895 Cleveland, Ohio. In its prime, they had over 65 local chapters, or “Courts,” across the U.S. Their historic information is available split between the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, and the University of Pittsburgh. Their work included supporting orphans, indigent elderly, and financially troubled young men pursuing priesthood in the Catholic Church. As with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, membership is restricted to Catholics of Irish origin or descent. Knights of Equity website.
3. St. Patrick’s Alliance of America: Organized by members of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick (see below), this organization was originally a secret society, and was founded in 1868. With benefits that mirror our modern day insurance policies, they provided sick and death benefits, a funeral benefit which paid the widow $75 at the time of her husband’s demise, and generally supported Roman Catholics. Their membership is not restricted, however, and they historically welcomed Protestants and Catholics to their ranks. Although they do not have an active online presence, look for historical records in local libraries and university archives.
4. Catholic Daughters of the Americas: Still one of the largest Catholic women’s organizations in the world, they were never an Irish-centric group. Their work in New York and surrounding states however make this an excellent resource for those with Irish American heritage. Founded in 1903, the possibilities for research extend to current day, giving insight into a more recent generation. They share much in common with the Knights of Columbus, as the founders were also members of that society, and their work had particular impact during both the first and second World Wars. Catholic Daughters of the Americas website.
5. Knights of Columbus: Like the Catholic Daughters of the Americas, the K.O.C. was never designated an Irish organization, but it is now the largest fraternal benefit society for Roman Catholic men in the world. It is commonly referred to as “Catholic Masons,” since Freemasonry was off limits for Catholics, and the description is relatively accurate as there are many similarities between the two. Researchers should start by perusing the website for their museum, then accessing the archives for more detailed information. Knights of Columbus website.
There are other organizations, of course, that you can utilize to gain a better understanding of your ancestors life. One more that is worthy of note for their historical contribution is the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, or The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick for the Relief of Immigrants from Ireland. Approaching their 244th anniversary, this organization is still very active in the Irish American community – and is the oldest incorporated continuously meeting Irish organization in the U.S. Although they do not advertise a library or archive, they do have an active History Committee, dedicated to preserving the life of the organization. See their website for more information.
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*Originally published August 2015.