“To be Irish is a Blessing, To be a Hibernian is an honor” -AOH pride statement
The Ancient Order of Hibernians has worked hard for more than one hundred and fifty years to preserve the essence of the New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, and to ensure that it runs smoothly.
When the British strove to suppress Catholicism in Ireland with a Counter-Reformation in the 1500s, many organizations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians were formed as quiet retaliation. The AOH was a fraternal organization that was originally created to protect the welfare of the people who joined as well as their families. It can also be traced back to a fraternal organization known as The Defenders, which was formed in 1565 Ireland. However, in the following centuries, it seemed as though the homeland itself was
turning on them; in 1729, Ireland faced a terrible famine due to three straight years of excessive frost during the harvest season.1 Eleven years later, The Great Frost hacked through Ireland, having an almost equally devastating effect upon the Irish as the Great Potato Famine of the 19th Century.2 With the seemingly endless destruction of their home, many Irish sought refuge overseas in America—and with this great move, the AOH saw the need for their securities to be at work in the colonies as well.
In America, it was equally difficult in many ways in terms of the struggles of the oppressed Irish in their homeland. Religious freedom, a championed aspect of this “New World,” still remained restricted to Catholicism. The Irish had welcomed the change from paganism to Catholicism with the arrival of Saint Patrick; a second change to the core of their spirituality seemed to trivialize everything that they believed in, and to undermine all of their “progress” and development as a nation. So, when the Ancient Order of Hibernians was able to gain a foothold in this burgeoning New World, they vowed from the beginning to maintain a strict regimen of what was deemed traditionally acceptable, and they have kept that promise for centuries3—for better or worse.
To the AOH, “tradition” can often mean prejudicial choices in terms of the admittance of certain group into the parade. Because they are the private coordinators of this event, they can essentially do what they want, with public policy unable to make any progress. Although this rigidity may have seemed admirable to many in the past (it’s likely that many today would feel the same way), the New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is facing huge opposition in terms of its strict selection criteria. One of the most prevalent stories that has been in the news in recent years is choice by the Ancient Order of Hibernians to ban Irish LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) Pride groups from marching in the NYC Parade. Examples of this bigotry have been known for years; however, as these groups take huge strides towards improving their rights in American society as a whole—especially in New York City—the rights given by the Parade to these same groups lag notably behind.
For years, the LGBT Pride groups were everything but powerless to change the admittance decisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in terms of the New York City Parade; however, physical protests and other demonstrations of an overwhelming objection to the rules of the AOH have been increasing with each passing year. The Parade, known by many activists as the “Anti-Gay Parade,” has been petitioning public figures such as the New York Police Department Commissioner for years, in hopes that groups such as the NYPD would put a stop to the blatant prejudice; still, after years of attempts by an increasing number of activist groups, little headway has been made in the hopes of fair entry to all who wish to show their Irish Pride, not just their LGBT Pride.
During the most recent Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, which took place in March of 2011, a physical protest was actually formed to mark the dissent caused by the NYPD’s continued cooperation in this “prejudiced event:” a two-hour picketing protest was held on Fifth Avenue for two hours of this year’s parade. After repeatedly failed attempts to get through to the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the groups that it works with, this was the next step in their course of action. 4
Still, despite the staunch disagreement with the AOH’s methodology on many fronts, it seems that for now there remains an impenetrable legal block: through various court rulings, the NYC Saint Patrick’s Day Parade has been defined as a “private, religious procession.” Because of these legality decisions, it’s likely that the Parade will remain this private and inaccessible to many Irish organizations for years to come. There is only one clause that gives hope to many members of these barred groups: if the Ancient Order of Hibernians misses one parade—just one—for any reason, their contract with the City to remain a private event, which was established more than a century ago, shall be nullified. New York City, despite the opinions of many protesters, stands in the way of many aspects of the NYC Saint Patrick’s Day Parade: they will not fund a penny of the festivities, will not partake in the decorating, and will not give a second chance in terms of nullification of the AOH Parade. With luck, hopefully this clause will be enacted through means other than violence, if at all, as many worry that the “fighting Irish” protesters progress ever closer to that point.
- Baker, Lyman. “Conditions in Early Eighteenth-Century Ireland.” Conditions in Early Eighteenth-Century Ireland. N.p., 28 Mar. 1999. Web. 18 May 2011. <http://www-personal.ksu.edu/~lyman/english320/sg-Swift-18thC.htm> ↩
- Eoin, . “The Great Frost And The Irish Famine Of 1740 .” History Journal.ie (2011): n. pag. Web. 18 May 2011. <http://www.historyjournal.ie/editors-blog/105-the-great-frost-and-the-irish-famine-of-1740.html> ↩
- “AOH History.” The Ancient Order of Hibernians. Ancient Order of Hibernians in America, 2008. Web. 18 May 2011. <http://www.aoh.com/pages/aoh_history.html>. ↩
- Gelman, Emmaia. “NYC’s anti-gay St. Pat’s parade: LGBT groups demand removal of NYPD contingents.” New York City Independent Media Center 15 Mar. 2011: n. pag. Web. 16 May 2011. <http://nyc.indymedia.org/es/2011/03/114421.html>. ↩