By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette — Now that the hoopla has subsided and the “wearin’ of the green” is over for another year, I decided to write some history of our local Irish heritage organizations. I recently met Kathleen Florence and she passed along some facts for me about the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The AOH in Niagara Falls has a long and proud history as the first chapter was formed on Sept. 16, 1892. They met in the Main Street area for many years as most of the Irish settlers resided in the north end of the city. The original division as they were referred to was incorporated on March 17, 1892, but ceased operations in 1955 as its membership decreased.
Following a St. Patrick’s Day party on March 17, 1970, at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Third Street, a new division was organized. Several men contributed $1 each to begin what is the present day Ancient Order of Hibernians. Seventy-three members were part of the original charter on May 16, 1970. After meeting at various locations during their first year, the Rev. James J. Browne, pastor of Sacred Heart Church on South Avenue and 11th Street, offered space in a classroom for a permanent clubhouse. He became a valued member of the organization and the division was named after him following his passing in 1985.
The division became the standard bearer for the annual celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Niagara Falls in 1983. Its main purpose is to celebrate and promote Irish culture and heritage. St. Patrick’s Day began in Ireland as a Catholic holiday, but over the years, it has become a festival as much as a holy day. I read a travel blog which stated: “to the Irish in Ireland, the day is first a feast and holy day, celebrated with a week-long tradition of festivities. Mass on St. Patrick’s Day is an obligation, and if one stops at a pub for a pint or two afterward, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. But there’s no influence to drink more because of the holiday. In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is treated like any other saint’s day.” Though the first parades in the United States were begun by Irish immigrants to fight for equal rights, the St. Patrick’s Day parades one sees today in Ireland are as a result of American influence. Same goes for the special meal, corned beef and cabbage is an American tradition; in Ireland, you’d more likely find succulent, pink bacon or a savory roast chicken on the table.
The first party in our city was held at the New York National Guard Armory on Main Street in 1983 where the attendance soon outgrew the facility and in 1994 it was moved to the Convention Center in the ballroom. Growing pains moved it to the main hall until it was sold to the Seneca Nation and reopened as the casino in 2002. The celebration continued at the Summit Mall in the old Hens and Kelly store until 2005 when it moved to the Conference Center Niagara Falls. As usual it was well attended this year, following “the shortest parade” which literally crosses Old Falls Street to the entrance door. Many prominent local citizens have been designated as the “Grand Parade Marshal” over the years. The local division participates in the Buffalo Irish Parade and has won several awards since 1970.
St. Patrick’s Day coincides with the annual birthday celebration of the city of Niagara Falls and time is allowed for a proclamation by the mayor and a traditional birthday cake. Our local party has become “the largest St. Patrick’s Day party in Western New York, gathering attendance over 3,000 when held on a weekend.
The Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians is a Sisterhood of Irish and Irish-American Catholic Women. A national organization, it dates to 1894 when originally recognized as the “daughters of Ireland” in Omaha Neb.
In 1906 they because the “Ladies Auxiliary to the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America. The present name became official in 1984 and the local chapter was established in 1975 and officially incorporated in 2004.
Its primary purpose was to protect young Irish women and girls coming to America to help them secure employment, have opportunities to be with other Irish immigrants, find housing and keep them from becoming homesick. Today the focus is on fostering the ideals, history and traditions of the Irish people. Its patron saint is Saint Bridgid of Ireland.
The ladies sell baked goods and coffee and tea at a” Tea Room” at the St. Patrick’s celebration, at the Niagara Celtic Festival in Olcott and will be at the coming to the Niagara Falls Music and Art Festival in June. Earlier in March they “take over” the Fashion Outlets sponsoring Irish Heritage Days with displays, music, and Irish Dance groups.
Both organizations are active in local charities, with the Ancient Order of Hibernians supporting the George B. Reed Memorial Scholarship to Niagara Catholic High School. The Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians assists many Retired Religious groups, the Magdalene Project and Summit Life Outreach Center. Both groups support the Heart, Love and Soul Food Pantry. They now have their own building at 9020 S. Military Road where they hold many member activities.
So it is not all parties and Irish dancing. We all knew that anyway as we all recognize a “fine Irishman” when we see one. And, it seems like they have all the luck as they are always giving some away. Top of the Mornin’ to you!
Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.