By JOHN O’DEA,
National Historian, A.O.H..
In the social organization of no nation of antiquity were societies of greater influence than in pagan Ireland. During many centuries these societies, composed of the bards, ollamhs, brehons, druids, and knights, contended for precedence. In no country did the literary societies display greater vigor and exercise a more beneficent power than in pagan Ireland. Although the Hebrews and other Asiatic nations had societies organized from among the professions, yet in Ireland alone these societies seem to have been constructed with a patriotic purpose, and in Ireland alone they seem to have had ceremonies of initiation, with constitutions and laws. These societies existed from the earliest times until after the coming of St. Patrick. Traces of them are visible during all the centuries from the conversion of Ireland down to the Anglo-Norman epoch, and it is apparent that the clan system and the introduction of the feudal system by the English failed to eliminate completely their influence.
When the Irish emigration flowed towards the American colonies in the eighteenth century, the social instinct early found expression in societies. One of the earliest of these was founded in Boston, where, in 1737, twenty-six “gentlemen merchants and others, natives of Ireland or of Irish extraction”, organized the Charitable Irish Society. In Pennsylvania, where the Irish emigration had been larger than in any other colony, the Hibernian Fire Company was organized in 1751. The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick was founded in Philadelphia in 1771, and about that time societies bearing this name were founded in Boston and New York, as convivial clubs welcoming Irish emigrants to their festive boards. These societies were formed upon the model of the Friendly Brothers of St. Patrick, which had existed in Dublin and other Irish cities a generation before, and was well and favorably known throughout Ireland.
The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Philadelphia contained some of the most prominent merchants and leading citizens of the city, and in 1780 they subscribed L103,000, or one-third of the sum collected, to supply the Continental army with food. Among its members were Commodore Barry, the Father of the American Navy; General Stephen Moylan; General Anthony Wayne; and the great merchants, Blair McClenachan, Thomas Fitzsimons, and Robert Morris. Washington, who was an honorary member, described it “as a society distinguished for the firm adherence of its members to the glorious cause in which we are embarked.” Whether upon the field or upon the sea, in council or in the sacrifice of their wealth, their names are foremost in the crisis of the Revolution.