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In the Beginning

The Protestant Reformation that swept Europe in the 16th century was marked by Royal intrigues over control of the Roman Church’s wealth, and conflicts over which religion could be practiced. Violence erupted in many countries. Elizabeth I declared the Church of England to be the State religion, and considered Ireland part of her state. Most Irish did not agree. The Papacy launched a counter-reformation and Ireland became a battlefield between the two forces as the Irish, who embraced the Church introduced by St. Patrick, became the target of a campaign to reduce Rome’s power by converting the masses to Protestantism. The persistence with which the Irish clung to their religion drove the English to extremes in repression. Penal laws disenfranchised Irish Catholics from the political, social, and economic life of their own country, and with their religion outlawed and their clergy on the run, they became an underground society practicing their religion in secret.

Not surprisingly, secret societies were formed to protect the values under attack. In various locales, groups with names like Whiteboys, Ribbonmen, and Defenders were identified with attacks on landlords, but each society included in its avowed purpose the protection of the Roman Church and its clergy. As time and government prevailed, some societies were suppressed, but most reorganized under a new name for the same purpose – defense of faith and homeland. History provides us with the names of many of these organizations, and even limited details of some. We know, for example, that the motto of the Defenders in 1565 was Friendship, Unity, and True Christian Charity, but the secret manner in which these societies operated left few records for modern analysts. As a result, a true history of their times may never be written. Continue reading our history on the AOH National website.

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