The creation of the Irish National Foresters Benefit Society, 1877

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2019), Volume 27

Friendly societies played a vital role in mitigating the worst material consequences of illness and hardship.

By Joe Fodey

Above: Joseph Hutchinson—instrumental in founding the Irish National Foresters Benefit Society in 1877 and its long-serving general secretary. He was later lord mayor of Dublin between 1904 and 1906. (Dublin City Library & Archive)

The Irish National Foresters (INF) was probably the most famous and influential of the many friendly societies operating in Ireland during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In its heyday it had branches throughout Ireland and the Irish diaspora; the most prominent Irish political, religious and civic figures were members, and its banners and regalia added colour to major public processions and demonstrations. It was also closely associated with Irish nationalism.

Friendly societies and benefit societies flourished in Britain and Ireland at this time. These fraternal associations were established to foster self-reliance, mutual aid and benevolence. In an era with limited state or civic health and welfare provision, the friendly societies played a vital role in mitigating the worst material consequences of illness and hardship. In return for a weekly subscription, a member of the INF off work owing to illness would receive a weekly allowance and receive medical attention and medicines. A funeral grant would also be paid when a member and his lawful wife died.

Previously existing societies regarded as ‘anti-Catholic and anti-national’

One of the most famous Foresters was the organisation’s long-serving general secretary, Joseph Hutchinson. A Dublin Corporation councillor and later lord mayor of Dublin, he had been a founding member of the INF. In an address to Archbishop Walsh of Dublin (Freeman’s Journal, 5February 1886) he stated that the INF had been founded in September 1877 in Dublin with the aim of uniting Irishmen at home and abroad in the causes of benevolence and nationality. In a clear reference to the Ancient Order of Foresters (AOF), he added that the INF provided an alternative to the English and Scottish ‘monster’ societies that were ‘extremely anti-Catholic and anti-national’. Hutchinson gives no detail of the founding of the INF, but reports of meetings of the INF, the AOF and the now largely forgotten Irish Independent Order of Foresters (IIOF) published, along with members’ letters, in the Freeman’s Journal (FJ) allow us to trace its origins.

We must start with events at the High Court (annual convention) of the AOF in Worcester in August 1874. Contrary to Hutchinson’s assertion, much of the Irish membership of the AOF in the 1870s was sympathetic to Irish nationalism, and many members had that summer attended a major demonstration of the Amnesty Association at Clontarf in full ceremonial dress. This was subsequently, and hypocritically, deemed as violating AOF rules by involving the society in politics. In a display of English animosity to Fenianism, the Dublin Foresters were reprimanded and warned against further political involvement.

Dubliners secede from the AOF

Writing in the midst of a later controversy (of which more below), Patrick Sheridan, chief ranger of the IIOF (FJ, 15 August 1877), stated that the prohibition caused some Dubliners to secede from the AOF and to form Court Home Rule of the IIOF in October 1874. A second court—Court Prosperity—was formed a couple of years later. Crucial to this story, however, was the forming of a third court, Court Wolfe Tone, in March 1877. Between 13 and 21 March the Freeman’s Journal carried advertisements and reports relating to a ball that would mark its formation. While emphasising that it had nothing to do with the AOF, the ball was held at an AOF hall at 55 Bolton Street with AOF members in attendance. We are also told that ‘Proceedings commenced with the statement of Mr H.J. O’Byrne, president of the ball’ (FJ, 21 March 1877). Henry J. O’Byrne was to emerge as a central figure in the story.

In June Court Wolfe Tone invited

‘… all Irishmen of every grade of politics and sect of religion to support us in our endeavours to establish in their native land a real Irish benefit society … whilst every other country has its distinct benefit society it is only right that Ireland should have hers …’ (FJ,6 June 1877).

Above: The Irish National Foresters banner kept in St Mary’s Church in Duntocher, East Dunbartonshire, Scotland. In its heyday the INF had branches throughout Ireland and the Irish diaspora. (Sam Scriven/St Mary’s Church, Duntocher)

It is important to note that even after the 1874 prohibition much of the Dublin AOF membership remained sympathetic to nationalism and, for instance, actively supported nationalist MPs. The IIOF, however, had greater ambitions, anticipating later cultural movements. Ireland having its own distinct civil social organisations was a mark of nationhood; it was not enough to be a branch of an English institution. The IIOF would not be just another friendly society but a manifestation of developing national consciousness. The corollary of independence was unity, however, and this required the separate courts of the IIOF to surrender their independence and become the several courts or branches of a larger organisation. While the local court would stay as the basic unit of the society, collectively they would unite to form a single ‘district’ with a shared rulebook and executive.

Ironically, to be recognised as independent and to operate legally the district had to be registered with the Crown’s Registrar of Friendly Societies. Court Home Rule took the leading role in the registration process. Two members—Brothers Peyton and Tracy—were appointed as ‘district chief ranger’ and secretary, and a committee was formed to carry out the necessary work. At first the negotiations seemed to go well: the courts started referring to themselves as ‘No. 2 and No. 3 of Irish Independent Foresters’ (FJ, 6 and 7 June 1877), and the district ranger (FJ, 7 June 1877) stated that the committee would have the rules submitted to the registrar by the end of the third week in June 1877. The courts then approved these rules and committed themselves to joining the new district (FJ, 21 and 28 June and 4 July 1877).

By the beginning of July, however, there was a problem. On 2 July the attention of the meeting of Court Wolfe Tone was drawn to a report on Court Home Rule in an unnamed public journal which ‘… [impeached] the sincerity of the members of [Court Wolfe Tone] in joining the district, and styling members of the deputation … most discourteously’.

Masonic practices?

Subsequent meetings between members of the courts and even the intervention of Court Prosperity failed to resolve the issue. The cause of the problem was disputed. We referred above to a letter written by Patrick Sheridan of the IIOF, which was occasioned by another vicious dispute between the Irish and English members of the High Court of the AOF in August 1877. The dispute was over references to secret practices in AOF rules that suggested that they were a Masonic organisation, and thus unacceptable to Catholics. Sheridan implied that this was also the cause of disunity in the IIOF, referring to ‘two young courts’ that ‘withdrew from our body’ because they wanted to retain similar secret signs and symbols.

Above: Five Irish National Foresters in their distinctive ‘Robert Emmet’ dress uniforms laying a wreath at the cenotaph, Leinster Lawn, Dublin, in the 1920s. (RTÉ Stills/Cashman Collection)

A Mr T.J. Dunne, a former member (FJ, 24 August 1877), took the ‘young court’ reference to include Court Prosperity. He denied Sheridan’s accusation, claiming instead that the problem was a delay by Court Home Rule in getting the district, and hence the constituent branches, properly registered. This was serious, because it was illegal to act while unregistered. A similar accusation was made at the meeting of Court Wolfe Tone on 2 July. The fact that Court Prosperity dissolved and reformed as part of the Catholic Benefit Society casts doubts on Sheridan’s claim, as does the later efforts by the INF to win Catholic approval. Whatever the cause, it was from this failure that the INF emerged.

The first mention of the INF—or, more precisely, the ‘Irish National Order of Foresters’—in the Freeman’s Journal was on 12 July 1877, in a report on a special meeting on 9July at 55 Bolton Street to decide how to proceed in the wake of the failed negotiations. Eighteen members, with Chief Ranger Thomas McVeigh in the chair, decided that it was they who would forge the independent national society. Henry O’Byrne’s proposal that ‘the time had come when a National Benefit Society into which Irishmen of all politics and religious sects would be welcome … and that we do now register ourselves as the Irish National Order of Foresters, with the power to have branches’, was carried without dissent and with renewed applause. Also carried was a further proposal, seconded by Joseph Hutchinson, ‘That we hereby invite Irishmen in all parts of the world to aid and support a real [my italics] National Benefit Society, and trust the members of other societies will lend us a friendly hand’.

On 21 July 1877 the members received a copy of the rules drawn up by O’Byrne. These were submitted to the registrar on 25 August and the amended rules, as ‘finally settled by the Assistant Registrar’, were approved by the membership, with the printed version being accepted on 24 September. The INF was finally fully registered on 27 September 1877 (letter from O’Byrne, FJ, 9 September 1878), and at the meeting on 1 October 1877 the production of the certificate of registration was ‘greeted with rounds of applause as for the first time an Irish national benefit society has been duly registered in our native land’ (FJ, 3 October 1877). At the same meeting it was also carried unanimously ‘that an illuminated address be presented to Brother O’Byrne as a … token of gratitude for his having founded the Irish National Foresters’.

‘Emmet costume’

In October they also adopted the famous ‘Emmet costume’ as their dress uniform. The reports from the later months record both the intense work required to have the society established and the jealous safeguarding of the designation ‘Irish Foresters’. Over these months the Foresters promoted the society among influential political and religious figures in Ireland.

From the start the new society seems to have stuck a chord in Ireland, attracting membership from Dublin, Wexford and Kilkenny and gaining favourable attention from the wider diaspora. The extensive organisation and the international repute of the INF bear witness to the determination and vision of its founding fathers.

Joe Fodey is former librarian at Glasgow Caledonian University.


A.D. Buckley, ‘On the club: friendly societies in Ireland’, Irish Economic History 14 (1) (1987).

S. Cordery, British friendly societies 1750–1914 (London, 2003).

D.E. Lynch, Friendly and Benefit Building Societies’ Commission: report of the Assistant Commissioners, Ireland and Wales (with Monmouth and Hereford) (London, 1874).


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