Irish Catholic organization in the United States opens its doors to women after nearly 200 years

After nearly 200 years, one of the leading Irish organizations in the United States is considering proposals to open its doors to women.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, which was originally formed to advocate for Irish Catholic immigrants to the United States before the famine, will decide to end its male-only membership rules at a conference in Pennsylvania in July.

However, the plan to admit women is met with opposition from the leadership of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians (LAOH) which, although having a widely shared history and goals, is completely separate from and runs parallel to the organization of men.

Essentially, the LAOH leadership views the admission of women into the HAE as detrimental to its own organization. He also argues that women who joined HAE would not be treated as equal members.

He told AOH in a letter last September that he viewed the organization’s sudden dropping of the gender requirement “as an act of sabotage to LAOH’s recruitment and continued growth.”


HAE has approximately 30,000 members across the United States. However, the number of members is aging and their number has dropped by about 20% over the last decade. Also, some politicians have been reluctant to engage with an organization that only allows men to join.

Danny O’Connell, the current national president of HAE, said he was disappointed with the response from the women’s organization. He told the Irish Times: “I can confirm that HAE is considering removing the male gender restriction from our terms of membership. I was disappointed with the reaction of LAOH management and the apparent campaign to undermine this effort.

“I hope the leaders and members of LAOH will adopt a proposal that would give women residing in America another opportunity to embrace their Irish heritage.”

Proponents of the new initiative believe that women’s membership would not only increase membership, but also reduce the age profile, which is currently estimated to be over 50 on average. They believe that younger men are also reluctant in some cases to be associated with an organization that does not admit women.

Mr O’Connell is due to travel to Ireland this week where he is due to meet senior politicians today, including Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

Former Fine Gael TD John Deasy is Head of Government Affairs at HAE. He said the decision whether or not to allow women to join the organization would be made by HAE members.

“However, it is undeniable that male or female only restrictions are considered outdated and unacceptable in Ireland today.”

HAE traces its history back to 1836 when it was established in New York and later in Philadelphia as a Catholic immigrant organization. Originally it had two purposes; to protect clergy and those who had arrived from Ireland in an environment hostile to Irish Catholics in the United States at the time.

Its constitution states that applicants for membership must be male, be able to prove Irish ancestry, and be a practicing Catholic.

He also has wider political goals calling for the introduction of a “fair US immigration law for Ireland” and played a pivotal role in crafting a bipartisan resolution passed by the House of Representatives. US in March urging the British government to drop plans to grant an amnesty for all Trouble-era murders in Northern Ireland.

Some people close to HAE argue that at the time of its founding, virtually all organizations were male-dominated. As it was a secret society, there are not many documents available describing the background of the rule.

In the mid-1890s, an AOH Women’s Auxiliary was established. This title was dropped in the 1980s and the men’s and women’s organizations officially separated in 2012.

LAOH National Chairperson Karen Keane told The Irish Times the “divorce” came about following a tax audit by US tax authorities. She said that at the time, the HAE leadership maintained that the women’s organization had nothing to do with it.


The constitution of the women’s organization is broadly similar to that of the HAE. Its membership is also limited to practicing Catholic women of Irish birth or descent as well as the wife or mother of an HAE member. It aims “to foster and maintain loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church and to foster and maintain loyalty to the United States of America among its members”.

Keane said LAOH membership, which had been declining through the end of 2019, has recovered. It has just over 10,000 members, a 5% increase over last year.

LAOH was more of an “on the ground” organization, she said, and it spent its money not on lobbying politicians but in local areas, such as helping women keep their babies.

“We’re talking about universal child care, universal child care so that women who babysit their children can afford to keep them in school.”

Ms Keane said her organization opposed HAE admitting female members “because in all honesty women will not be treated . . . equal members if they join HAE.

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