A large trove of records from Pittsburgh area divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians are now available for viewing at the Senator John Heinz History Center. The Irish-Catholic fraternal organization was founded in 1836 to fight anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice.
During a recent visit to the Heinz Center I was able to find meeting minutes recording the 1914 acceptance and induction of my grandfather, Willie Diggins, into the AOH. He joined Division 15 in the city’s Hazelwood section nine months after his emigration from Kerry. The record states:
The application of Wm Diggins, age 20 years of 63 Almeda St. was reported favorable. The ballot being found favorable the candidate was duly elected.
I also read the group’s June 26, 1921, discussion about “the critical situation in Irish affairs.” Division 15 membership opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty “in which the leaders in Ireland were apparently being jockeyed into negotiations which could not end in anything more than a compromise and a sacrifice of the time-honored principals of a united and independent Ireland.”
There is a critical gap in the Division 15 meeting minutes from 1925 to 1935. This period would have included the group’s discussion of the 1928 candidacy of Al Smith, the nation’s first Irish-Catholic presidential nominee, as well as potential details about my grandfather’s February 1935 streetcar accident.
Separate membership dues ledgers show that Willie made his last $1 monthly payment to the organization about the time of the accident. He was “dropped” from the group on July 1, 1935, after 22 years of membership. He was $15 in arrears.
Willie’s failure to continue paying membership dues after his streetcar accident suggests he might not have received any support from the group, which helped members in times of hardship. Other ethnic associations provided similar benefits to their members. With a wife and six daughters to support on his streetcar motorman’s salary, Willie’s money was tight and his family ranked as a higher priority than the AOH.
As the Great Depression lingered, other AOH members nationwide also were drifting from the organization, according to Jay P. Dolan in his book, “The Irish Americans: A History.” By 1935, U.S. circulation of the National Hibernian magazine declined by nearly two thirds of its pre-Depression readership. The fervor of Irish nationalism waned more than a decade after the revolutionary period of 1913-1923.
By the mid-1930s the Irish community and the Catholic Church had recovered from the prejudice and indignities of Smith’s 1928 election defeat. As a demographic group and as individuals they asserted their place in America as the country trudged through the economic downturn and soon marched into World War II.
Willie died 10 days after the Pearl Harbor attack, a month before his 48th birthday. A few weeks later Division 15 of the AOH passed a motion endorsing President Roosevelt and agreeing to purchase defense bonds to support the war effort.