AOH roots in rural Ulster

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2012), Volume 20

Across a broad spectrum, from affronted ecclesiastic to paranoid loyalist, a considerable ‘rap-sheet’ mounted up against the AOH. The Ribbonmen (as they were also known) stood charged with sectarianism, violent suppression of political opponents, undue influence on the IPP machine and an ultimately separatist outlook. Nevertheless, behind this criticism lay the near-universal opinion that the Hibernians stood to inherit the earth in the wake of Home Rule. It is possible to trace much of this criticism back to the order’s roots in rural Ulster. In a typical piece of early twentieth-century anachronism, the Hibernians’ official history drew a line of succession from Rory Óg O’More’s exploits against the Tudor conquest through to the agrarian secret societies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hibernianism emerged most forcibly at the turn of the twentieth century in rural south-west Ulster, amongst a subclass of Catholic small tenants and labourers in Armagh, Tyrone, Monaghan and south Derry. The Hibs espoused a blend of strident Irish nationalism, a stout defence of local Catholic interests and a tacit acknowledgement of the emerging Irish language and sporting revival. It was the Ribbonmen’s clandestine organisation of oaths and passwords, however, allied to the often-violent enforcement of social conformity, which provoked widespread denunciation when the order emerged as a national force. The tone of a great deal of Hibernian mobilisation emerges from the arrest of an ordinary Board of Erin member in the order’s Tyrone heartland:
‘Current signs and passwords were found in the possession of John Kerr, farmer, Rock . . . when arrested for drunkenness on 23rd December 05, as well as a revolver with two discharged cartridges in the chamber. This man is a bad character and in processions in which he has taken part hitherto revolver shots have been fired.’

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