WHO WE ARE: Ancient Order of Hibernians performs modern good deeds
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When Bill Halpin considers his Irish ancestry, two distinct thoughts come to mind.
One is the role his relatives played in history.
“There’s been a Halpin involved in every Irish uprising since 1798—and even before then,” said the Lake of the Woods man, smiling.
The other is his association with the oldest Catholic fraternal organization in the nation.
Halpin is president of the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The group has about 50 members, primarily from the four Catholic churches in Spotsylvania County and Fredericksburg.
It’s named the Gen. Thomas F. Meagher Division after the Irishman who commanded the Irish Brigade during the Civil War. (Meagher is pronounced “Maar.”)
To this day, people associate the group with violence, and Halpin says that’s never been the case.
“One guy I know says, ‘You all are making pipe bombs in your basements,’” Halpin said. “The Ancient Order of Hibernians was never a militant organization.”
Instead, the “brothers” in the Spotsylvania chapter support charities that uphold Irish–American beliefs. They donate to pro-life groups, including Mary’s Shelter and the Paul Stefan Foundation, provide scholarships to Catholic schools and help men find employment.
The Hibernians strive to make life better for their community as they commemorate the “An Gorta Mor,” respect for life. Translated, that’s “The Great Hunger” or period of mass famine, starvation and emigration from Ireland in the 1840s and ’50s.
The Hibernians had formed nationwide a few years earlier—in 1836—mainly to protect Irish–Catholic priests who faced the same kind of persecution in America as in their native land.
The Hibernians extended their protection to every Irish citizen who landed at Ellis Island.
“The whole purpose of the Ancient Order of Hibernians was to ensure that Irish immigrants had the opportunity to purse the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Halpin said.
The Spotsylvania group donates about $7,000 per year to local causes. It raises all its money through a raffle that offers two tickets to Ireland with accommodations at bed-and-breakfast inns.
“All you have to do is buy gas and Guinness,” he said.
The members help sponsor the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade with the Blue & Gray Brewing Co. They like the March 17 atmosphere so much, they had a “Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day” party last year in the fall and plan to do the same this October.
“Our objective,” Halpin said, “is to showcase Irish culture and dance and music and to have fun.”
And to drink?
“No, no, no,” he clarified. “We call that having fun.”
THE TOP 5
Everybody may be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but according to the U.S. Census, those of Irish descent rank third in the Fredericksburg area in terms of ancestries noted on census forms.
Here are the top five ancestries claimed, the number of people of each heritage and their percentage in terms of the region’s overall population.
GERMAN: 70,977 or 16%
ENGLISH: 58,067 or 13%
IRISH: 57,373 or 13%
ITALIAN: 20,005 or 4%
ABOUT THE GROUP
The Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher Division of Spotsylvania County is one of 15 chapters of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Virginia.
The group is for men only and meets on third Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. at the Fredericksburg Knights of Columbus building on Harrison Road.
At each meeting, guest speakers talk about issues in Ireland, Irish–American history or culture. More information is available online at: fredericksburgaoh.org
WHO WE ARE is an occasional series about people who illustrate the diversity of life in the Fredericksburg region.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425