The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, or The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland, was founded in Philadelphia on March 17, 1771 and continues on as a benevolent society today. Tom Deignan looks at the history and ongoing tradition of one of the best-known Irish-American organizations in the U.S. today.
At the end of 2012, St. Rose Catholic School in Belmar, New Jersey – badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy – received a $15,000 donation from the local chapter of the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. Given that Sandy will ultimately cost the state of New Jersey billions of dollars, a Friendly Sons donation to a single Jersey Shore Catholic school may not seem like much.
But when you pile up all of the charitable donations from all of the Friendly Sons chapters, going back to the time before there was even a nation called the United States of America, you start to appreciate just how much this Irish-American institution has done.
At this time of year, from Boston to San Diego, the Friendly Sons are out in full force. They are organizing, sponsoring and marching in scores of St. Patrick’s Day Parades across the country. But to get a true sense of how vital Friendly Sons chapters remain in communities across America, you have to flip the calendar a bit. An April 10-K run in Central Iowa. A December Little Sisters of the Poor Christmas Party in Baltimore. Blood drives, toy drives, scholarship contests and charity golf outings in Cincinnati, Scranton, Detroit, and Mobile, Alabama.
Keeping Irish culture alive – and doing charitable works – is not only what the Friendly Sons do: it is what they have been doing for 240 years.
The Founding Sons
The early 1770s were not a pleasant time to be an Irish Catholic in the American colonies. In many areas, Catholics could not own land or vote, and there had been spasms of violence against what some Protestants viewed as the Pope’s agents in North America. Yet, many Catholics managed to distinguish themselves. And though undoubtedly some held animosity towards Protestants, the Friendly Sons was conceived as a non-denominational organization, open to Catholics, Protestants and Quakers.
The society was formed in Philadelphia on March 17, 1771, which at that time was “the focus of every political and diplomatic movement, the Capitol of the nation, where Independence was declared, national conventions and Congress met, the seat of the confederated Federal and State Governments, the residence of the Foreign Ambassadors and ministers, and occasionally the theatre of war,” as Samuel Hood wrote in 1844 in A Brief Account of the Society of the Friendly Sons.
Early membership relied heavily on those who had wrested American independence from the British in the Revolutionary War. As Hood wrote, “The men of whom [the Friendly Sons] was composed [were] some of the most active and influential patriots of the country . . . distinguished in the Army, Navy, Cabinet, and Congress.”
Among the founders listed by Hood are Thomas Fitzsimons, an Irish-born Catholic merchant from Wexford who came to the U.S. in the 1750s. Fitzsimons served in the Revolutionary War, as a captain under Colonel John Cadwalader, a Quaker, who also went on to become a founding member of the Friendly Sons.
Cadwalader, a New Jersey-born merchant, distinguished himself as a leader, and forced the British General Howe to surrender the state of New Jersey to the Americans.
Another founding member was Commodore John Barry. A Wexford man like Fitzsimons, Barry left New Ross as a cabin boy on one of his uncle’s ships and ended up as “The Father of the American Navy.” (An imposing statue of Barry, erected by the Friendly Sons on March 16, 1907 stands outside of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall).
Other prominent Irish Americans present at the creation of the Friendly Sons were John Dickinson, a lawyer and politician from Philadelphia. Robert Morris, a Philadelphian who is credited with financing the war, and General Anthony Wayne, whose father was an emigrant from Wicklow, and whose military exploits earned him the moniker “Mad Anthony.”
Stephen Moylan, another Catholic, from Cork, who would go on to become one of General George Washington’s closest aides, became the first president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.
Easily the most prominent of the early Friendly Sons members, however, was a military man and gentleman farmer from Virginia who became an honorary member in 1782.
“I accept with singular pleasure, the ensign of so worthy a fraternity as that of the Sons of St. Patrick in this City, a society distinguished for the firm adherence of its members to the glorious cause in which we are embarked,” George Washington said in 1782, seven years before he would go on to become President of the United States.
Since a main goal of the Friendly Sons has always been to assist others, it should be no surprise that when Famine struck Ireland in the 1840s, the Friendly Sons were one of the most active organizations administering aid to the Irish on both sides of the Atlantic. The Friendly Sons worked closely with other charitable and religious organizations to deliver maximum assistance to those in need. Recorded minutes of Friendly Sons meetings suggest that hunger in Ireland remained a top priority for the group well into the 1870s.
Also during the mid-19th century, Irish Americans were deeply affected by the U.S. Civil War. Many initially believed the war would be a brief affair. But early in the war, after the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, it was clear this would be a long, bloody ordeal. Nearly 40 members of the famous “Irish Brigade” — The Fighting 69th – were killed at Bull Run, and their famous leader, Sligo-born Colonel Michael Corcoran, was taken prisoner.
“These losses deeply affected the Irish American community in New York,” writes Edward K. Spann in The New York Irish. “The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick contributed some $1,500 to help equip and sustain the Sixty-ninth.”
Just as noteworthy, however, was the assistance the Friendly Sons gave to those whose roots did not lie in Ireland.
John Hugh Campbell explored this ecumenical spirit of giving in an 1892 book entitled History of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and of the Hibernian Society for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland.
“Whether it be in raising money for the struggling people of Ireland, or in promptly contributing to the relief of the Johnstown flood sufferers, or, as we have just witnessed, to the famine-stricken peasants of Russia,” Campbell said the Friendly Sons and other Irish aid groups were always willing to lend a hand.
Victims of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 and the Spanish American War in the late 1890s also received assistance from the Friendly Sons. It is no wonder, then, that Friendly Sons members often recite the lines from a 18th century poem by Dublin-born writer Thomas Moore:
“Shall I ask the brave soldier who fights by my side,
In the cause of mankind,
if our creeds disagree?
Shall I part from my friend,
both valued and tried,
If he kneels not before the same altar with me?”
Independence, Education and Politics
This is not to suggest that Irish immigrants in the U.S. were somehow ignored by the Friendly Sons. Records show that in 1893 over 300 immigrants to the U.S. from 21 arriving ships received aid from the Friendly Sons.
The war years in Ireland, from the Easter Rising of 1916 through the Civil War years of the 1920s created great need, and one estimate suggests that over $5,000 in aid was sent to Ireland during this trying time. Once the tensions eased, the Friendly Sons aimed to strengthen the ties between the Irish on both sides of the Atlantic. A new scholarship program created in 1954, for example, allowed students from Ireland to study at American universities. (In the 1990s, the Friendly Sons initiated a new program enabling American students to study in Ireland.)
Meanwhile, when a certain senator from Massachusetts was pondering a run for the White House on March 17th, 1959, he delivered a rousing speech heavy on Ireland’s historical struggle to the Friendly Sons in Providence, Rhode Island. Fittingly, however, John Fitzgerald Kennedy struck a more inclusive tone towards the end of his speech
“Let us recognize that there may be satellite governments, but there are never satellite peoples — that nations may be colonized, but never men –- and that whether a man be East German or West German, Chinese or Irish, Catholic or Moslem, white or black, there forever burns within his breast the unquenchable desire to be free.”
Most touching of all, in March of 1964 – just four months after JFK’s assassination – Bobby Kennedy spoke at a Friendly Sons of Lackawanna County dinner in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It was RFK’s first public speech since his brother was gunned down, and he struck a somber note when he chose to recite lines from Thomas Davis’s poem about Irish nationalist figure Owen Roe O’Neill. Robert’s slain brother had earlier read the poem in public, which only lent more poignancy to the lines:
“We’re sheep without a shepherd,
when the snow shuts out the sky –
Oh! why did you leave us, Owen?
Why did you die?”
Kennedy ended his speech thusly:
“So, on this St. Patrick’s evening let me urge you one final time to recall the heritage of the Irish. Let us hold out our hands to those who struggle for freedom today – at home and abroad – as Ireland struggled for a thousand years.
“Let us not leave them to be ‘sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sky.’ Let us show them that we have not forgotten the constancy and the faith and the hope – of the Irish.”
Those who were there remember clearly that there was not a dry eye in the house.
One of the most impressive things about the Friendly Sons is their ability to attract leading members of the Irish American community to their ranks. Today, when many Irish-American organizations are struggling to attract younger members, the Friendly Sons is doing better than most. The tradition of membership is often handed down from father to son. Other young professional males are attracted by the camaraderie and fraternity the organization promotes. Impressive too, are the high-profile speakers – from top politicians and religious leaders to movie stars and authors – the Friendly Sons feature at their annual St. Patrick’s Day dinners.
Besides Robert Kennedy, past speakers at the Friendly Sons of Lackawanna annual dinner include Harry Truman who appeared twice, before and after he was president. And Vice President Hubert Humphrey who caused a stir when he turned up without a tuxedo. This is one of the stories featured in a stirring video by Dan Simrell commemorating the 100th anniversary of The Friendly Sons of Lackawanna. The video includes a clip from Robert Kennedy’s speech.
Given that Vice President Joe Biden’s great-grandfather, the Hon. Edward F. Blewitt of Scranton, was a co-founder of the Lackawanna chapter, it’s fitting and poignant, that the young senator spoke at the chapter’s annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner in 1973. It was his first public speech following the tragic death of his wife and daughter in an auto crash just months before.
Though membership in the Friendly Sons was open to Catholics and Protestants, one group has been traditionally excluded: women. (They are the Friendly Sons, after all.) Their annual black tie dinners around St. Patrick’s Day generally remain all-male affairs, and this has created some uncomfortable moments. Connecticut newspaper columnist Bill Stanley wrote about a Friendly Sons dinner in Norwich where the guest of honor was Ireland’s sitting Prime Minister Jack Lynch. Lynch’s wife, however, was not allowed to attend the dinner.
Despite the potential for controversy, the Friendly Sons generally believe the “men only” rule is about camaraderie rather than exclusion.
“I happen to have seven daughters so I have to be very careful,” former judge and Friendly Sons of Lackawanna County president Richard Conaboy says in the aforementioned video. “I have always thought that women ran the world anyhow and it was a rare occasion that men were able to put something together of their own.” While another former president, John A. Quinn says: “We’ve invited some [women] who were judges but they were always wise enough to recognize the fact that this was strictly a man’s world – for that one day out of the year. And that’s all – that one day out of the year.”
In recent years, Friendly Sons and Daughters chapters have sprung up around the country, while other chapters have opened more events up to both sexes.
Now that the calendar has turned to March, Friendly Sons chapters are generally consumed with events revolving around St. Patrick’s Day. Thus it might seem easy to forget the charitable portion of the Friendly Sons’ mission. But even parades can be about much more than good times and green beer. Consider that local Friendly Sons chapters are among those organizations dedicated to making sure that towns ravaged by Hurricane Sandy kick off their annual St. Patrick’s Day parades. This year, Jersey towns such as Keyport, Seaside Heights, Highlands, and Belmar, as well as Sandy-ravaged towns across Long Island, will hold parades despite the obstacles they still face. Friendly Sons chapters play a large role in making sure local residents — Irish or not — enjoy a sense of normalcy, community and comfort. Which is pretty much what they’ve been doing for 240 years.
The Glee Club
One hundred years ago, Victor Herbert was on top of the musical world. The Dublin-born composer watched as his latest operetta, Sweethearts, opened first in Baltimore, before moving to Boston and Philadelphia. By September of 1913, the operetta hit New York’s Broadway and would run for over 100 performances.
That same year, Herbert also helped create The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Glee Club. He wrote or arranged many of the Glee Club’s trademark songs, including “The New Ireland,” “The Boys of Wexford” and “The Cruiskeen Lawn.”
Friendly Sons chapters from New York to Cincinnati still have active choral groups with up to 50 members who practice weekly and perform all over the country.
“The Glee Club sings choral compositions of all kinds – traditional Irish music, contemporary Irish music, religious music, Broadway show tunes, music from the 1940’s through today’s popular songs,” current New York Friendly Sons Glee Club conductor Kevin Faughey wrote in a recent letter to members.
In addition, the song “Hail to the Friendly Sons,” with lyrics by Dublin native Joseph Ignatius Constantine Clarke (who also helped create the club), is performed at Friendly Sons meetings and Glee Club rehearsals. With an arrangement by Victor Herbert, Clarke’s lyrics remind listeners of the importance of Ireland’s long struggle for freedom:
“Shall we who meet and part to-night / Remember not our sires?
Shall we forget their age-long fight / Their quenchless battle-fires?
They handed us the freedom-flame / That spreads from sea to sea.
They bade it burn in Ireland’s name / Till land and race are free.”
Friendly Sons Glee Clubs have boasted world class talent over the years. The New York group was led, for five decades, by Dr. George Meade, whom the New York Times called “one of the most celebrated choral conductors in New York City” in its 1996 obituary.
The Glee Club appeared several times on St. Patrick’s Day episodes of the famous Ed Sullivan Show (Sullivan himself an Irish American). They have also performed triumphant shows at Radio City Music Hall and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
To this day, Friendly Sons Glee Clubs give performances at churches and other public events all year round.
Over his long career, Victor Herbert produced countless songs, operettas and more. But when he served as a guiding force behind the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Glee Club, he surely couldn’t have known that he helped create something that would still be going a strong a century later.
Watch a short film, produced by Dam Simrell, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Lackawanna County Friendly Sons of St. Patrick: