History

The following is taken from an address to the Society delivered by Robert J. Reilly (President 2004-2005) at a Stated Meeting held on May 8, 2000.

Our story begins in the 1770's at a time when these colonies were suffering under what they believed to be the disadvantaged situation of their relationship with Great Britain. You are familiar with the battles that took place at Lexington and Concord, which culminated in the Declaration of Independence issued on July 4th, 1776, in Philadelphia. What you may not be aware of is that within forty-five days of the Declaration, the battle for New York City took place. It took place basically in Brooklyn. The battle lines were drawn actually along Flatbush Avenue.

It was an unhappy day for the colonists. And General Washington, recognizing the devastating results that were affecting his troops, retreated. Then in the late evening, in the cover of darkness, he moved his entire armed forces to Manhattan. He took a position in northern Manhattan hoping to fight another day, and that day came later on that year. Further casualties and further defeat took place. At that point in time there were more American army men held prisoners by the British than there were in Washington's forces.

He was forced to retreat again across the Hudson River. This weighed heavily on his heart for the next eight years. For the next eight years, New York City was a garrison city; a population that had numbered about twenty-five thousand, before the war, shrunk to numbers of about thirteen thousand during the war time.

During those entire eight years it was a garrison city. The militias were housed in the homes of the citizens here. There was a lack of commerce. There was tremendous oppression on those present in the City.

The war took its course over the period of these eight years, finally ending at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, with the victory for the American forces. It was realized that it would take several months for the British troops to leave these shores. It actually took about six months for the British troops to finally depart from the American coastline.

On the day in November, 1783, George Washington was with his troops in Harlem as the British forces prepared to disembark from the Battery. He began his march down "Broad-way," Broadway to us, to finally take his position on lower Broadway, to arrive in triumph at the scene of his worst defeat.

As he stood there and reviewed his troops, on the steps of cape's Tavern, it was one of the most important and most exhilarating moments in the history of this great City.

He left that site, following the review of his troops, and journeyed to Pearl Street, to dine with a man by the name of Hercules Mulligan, - a famous name in these quarters, and one of the founders of this Society.

But as you can imagine, New York City, with the leaving of the British, was in a terrible state. It had been a garrison city. Its economy was basically destroyed. It was a very difficult time. Veterans were returning from the war who were injured, who were shell-shocked, and the City was in a state of chaos and disarray.

At that point in time a man by the name of Daniel McCormick, who had been born in Ireland and lived on Wall Street, 39 Wall Street, called together a group of his friends in December of 1783. And he proposed to them the founding of a Society to care for their fellow Irishmen, Irish citizens here in the City. He brought together with him William Constable, who had been an aide-de-camp to General Lafayette; Robert Ross Wadell, who was in the importing and shipbuilding business; Hugh Gaine, a printer and publisher of the New York Mercury, and a bookseller with a store by the name of "The Crown and Bible", before the war. After the war it was known as, "The Bible".

Daniel McCormick was handsome, clean-shaven, clear eyed and of calm demeanor. He was a stylish dresser. He was a man of considerable substance with a fine reputation for charity and personal probity. The Society which he proposed had the main purpose of charity. Indeed, in the 1700's the word "friendly" was synonymous with charity. Its primary meaning was charity. Its secondary meaning was social intercourse.

The Society was formed to help the unusual number of impoverished and displaced Irishmen, who had arrived in New York in the wake of the British evacuation. During 1784, and in subsequent years, they provided money, food, clothing and shelter to the less fortunate fellow countrymen. These were acts of personal and collective charity.

And the early minute books of the Society record gifts of "one dollar to the widow O'Neil, one dollar to the McGuire family." It was charity on a daily basis. They provided blankets. They paid rent. They provided food. At the time, there was no organized welfare system in New York. Each ethnic group took care of their own.

The Society, at that point, was by no means unique. The Boston Charitable Irish Society had been founded as early as 1737, Philadelphia Society of the Friendly Sons was founded in 1771. Although it would soon founder and be reestablished under a different name. Also in New York, the Scots had organized their Saint Andrew Society in 1756. The German's Society was established in 1784, the same year in which the Friendly Sons were founded, while the Saint George's Society was established in 1786 for Englishmen. The Saint David Society was founded in 1835.

The first meeting of the Society, the first Anniversary Dinner, was held on March 17, 1784 at Cape's Tavern, the scene of George Washington's great triumphal return. You also find that the leading members and founders of the Society were involved in other charitable works. Indeed, in 1785, Daniel McCormick, William Constable and Hercules Mulligan founded the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slavery; doing away with slavery in New York.

The first report of the Saint Patrick's Day Dinner, the Saint Patrick's Anniversary Dinner, is the proper phasing, appeared in the New York Packet, reporting that: "Yesterday being the anniversary of Saint Patrick, his Patriotic Sons met at Cape's Tavern where they gave an eloquent entertainment to his Excellency, the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Chancellor and other respectable gentlemen of this State."

The Governor, at that point, was George Clinton, a son of Charles Clinton of Longford, Ireland. The Lieutenant Governor was Pierre Van Cortlandt, whose name persists to this day. And the Chancellor was the distinguished lawyer Robert Livingston, a member of the Committee appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence.

Now, in the beginning, only native sons of Ireland or their sons could become members of the Friendly Sons. Membership was limited to one hundred. In practice the Society was an elite organization. It should also be noted that several of these gentlemen, the founders of the Society, had many common business interests together.

On March 15, 1784, two days before the first Anniversary Dinner, Daniel McCormick, the founder, and four other members of the Friendly Sons, along with nine others, most notably Alexander Hamilton, founded The Bank of New York. A list of the Society's members, in fact, reads like a Who's Who. Among the prominent New Yorkers were the Clintons, previously mentioned, and James Duane, the first Mayor of New York. Most early members of the Society were merchants, not the professional who would later dominate the Society.

Daniel McCormick served as President of our Society for thirty-four years. The second President - and intermediate times over the thirty-four years - he was succeeded after his initial term by William Constable. And the third President was Alexander McComb, who had been born in Antrim.

This is a fascinating point. In 1791, just a few years after the founding of our Society, the State of New York was very anxious to encourage population of the upstate region. There was a gigantic land sale to promote the settlement of these lands. These three gentlemen, together, formed a syndicate that purchased four million acres in upstate New York. It included all of the land of Saint Lawrence, Lewis, Jefferson and Franklin Counties, one-tenth of the entire state, with an area larger than the State of Connecticut, controlled jointly by the first three Presidents of the Friendly Sons.

It is also interesting to note a discovery made only during the last century, that Daniel McCormick actually had his portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart. That portrait now resides in England in the possession of some relatives of his. The Society at one point tried to purchase the portrait.

Though a rather exclusive group in terms of class, the Friendly Sons clearly did not discriminate on the basis of religion. In its early years most members of the Friendly Sons were Presbyterians, simply because most upper class Irish merchants in New York belonged to that faith. But the membership also included Episcopalians, Quakers and Roman Catholics. The Society's tolerant attitude in regard to religion was paralleled by an equally open-minded attitude towards political differences.

The original members of the Society included ardent patriots as well as individuals who had remained in New York during the war. Tradition has it that at one of the early meetings of the Society, it was determined that no religious or political discussion should be permitted to be raised at its meeting which would cause discord, disunity or differences of opinion. In general, that tradition has been maintained to this day.

Now, as the Society turned into the 1800's, and New York began to readjust itself to normalization of life, one of the members of the Society had a tremendous impact on the life of this City and this State.

De Witt Clinton, who had been the Mayor as well as the Governor of New York State, had proposed the building of the Erie Canal. The positioning of New York, with a wonderful harbor, gave it a great leg up on becoming one of the great ports for this nation. But the Appalachian Mountain chain effectively cut us off from the great wealth and the great natural resources of this nation. And there are only three ways over them. Each was very different and costly.

De Witt Clinton proposed a fourth way. His proposal of building the Erie Canal, a two hundred and fifty mile-long ditch connected New York and New York Harbor to the great heartland of this nation. The building of that canal, which came in under budget and in record time was principally responsible for the future financial success of New York City.

De Witt Clinton was a member of the Friendly Sons. And that act, and the building of the canal, which is hard for us to understand its importance, had a gigantic affect on the financial success of New York City.

We also need to realize that in the year 1800 New York City had a population of about one hundred thousand. By the year 1900 New York City had a population of almost five million. It went from one hundred thousand to five million in the short span of one hundred years. They not only had to absorb all these people, they had to build the City for them. It was an extraordinary century, and a truth that is somewhat lost to us today: to realize that by the year 2000, there was really only seven and half million. All of the growth of New York City took place during the course in the 1800's.

In the early 1800's, an event took place that had a dramatic impact on the Society. In 1835 a fire broke out in lower Manhattan. It consumed twenty blocks. The fire burned for two days and two nights. Six hundred and ninety-three homes and buildings were destroyed. Included in that were the homes and businesses of most of the leaders of the Friendly Sons.

It had a devastating impact on our Society, for the records of the Society were lost, the minute books, the ledgers, the medallions and badges, and all of the banners of the Society. Shortly thereafter, in 1837, the nation suffered a financial panic and depression. These events had a devastating effect upon the Society and upon its membership.

Following shortly thereafter arrived the famine and the thousands and thousands of immigrants fleeing the famine at home. It was a very, very difficult time for the Society.

With its leadership devastated by economic turmoil, with the demands upon it rising, hundreds and thousands-fold, the Society was in a very, very precarious position. Dr. Robert Hogan and other members of the Society decided to organize two new immigrant aid organizations. One, known as the Irish Immigrant Society, founded in 1841, to deal with the immigration issues.

And the second is the Irish Emigrant Savings Bank, to help Irishmen who are here in America to send their funds back home in an honest fashion. As those Societies grew up, it relieved some of the pressure on the Friendly Sons who were basically almost broken by the weight of the burden placed upon it to deal with the incredible influx of Irish immigrants.

At that point, one whom you might call the "second founder" of the Society became the President of our Society. Judge Charles P. Daly became the President of our Society in 1860. He was Chief Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in New York. He was born in New York City of two immigrant parents who had immigrated here from Ireland. He became President at forty-four years of age. Over the course of several years, he served as President seven different times. But he held this Society together. He was a great orator, a lawyer, the most respected Judge in the City.

He reinstated the quarterly meetings, which had been lost. The Anniversary Dinners had continued except during the famine years, when the Anniversary Dinners were canceled and the funds sent to Ireland. But he restored the quarterly meetings, realizing how important they were to provide the social fabric for the success of the Society.

By 1880 and 1890, membership in the City began to be a mark of social distinction. You also find at that point that professionals began to dominate the Society. The merchants of the City had been the dominant force in it up until and through the Civil War.

Of course, the period following the Civil War was a period of great turmoil in New York City as well. That is another reason why the stature of Judge Daly was so important to keep in the Society moving forward and to keep it together.

It's also interesting to note that by 1900 the Society had lost somewhat of its pro-British flavor that had developed over the course of the 1800's. In 1901, the Society was invited by the British Consul General to participate in memorial services at Trinity Church for the late Queen Victoria. The yearbook notes with great understatement, "The Secretary informed the members he had replied to the British Consul General's courteous invitation stating that - "The Society had taken no action in the matter."

In the first two decades of the 1900's, the Anniversary Dinners became lavish, extravagant affairs. Obviously, the members of the Society had reached a level of social prominence and financial success that was extraordinary. And they were certainly, by the standards of our dinners of current times, they were bordering on excess.

But also understand that even during the Great Depression of the 1930's the Society continued its charitable benefactions. At least two hundred and fifty individual charitable benefactions per year were dispensed by the Society.

In the year 1900, Sir Thomas Lipton, the famous Irish tea merchant was made a member of the Society. And in 1901 he presented a beautiful bog oak harp to the Society.

Also around that time the Society developed a very special relationship with the Fighting 69th and resolved to present a stand to colors, the National, the State, the Irish and the regimental flags to the Fighting 69th. A quote from the yearbook of the time reads: "The President of our Society and the Flag Committee were introduced and the presentation of the flags took place. After the flags were received by Colonel Duffy on behalf of the Command, the regiment marched past the Committee, and the scene was of a nature not soon to be forgotten by all who participated therein.

"It was a dark evening, very little sunshine, just in the gloaming. And as the men marched by where the Committee stood, in the full vigor of health with the swinging gait of soldiers, they presented an appearance that indicated that the flags we gave them were entrusted to worthy hands.

"As they marched past with their flags flying, they seemed to disappear into the darkness. The night was falling. And by the time the last company had gone by, the first company was scarcely visible.

"Mr. Joseph I.C. Clarke, one of our members, was forced into expressions of the most poetic nature, in which he said that the vanishing appearance of the first company before the last went by, typified the future into which they were going, which they knew not of, but which we and they felt was a future that no matter of what danger, of what suffering, it would entail the Irish blood and name as represented by the old gallant regiment of Corcoran and Meagher, would be maintained in the face of any enemy and against all odds."

By the 20th Century, the social standing of the Society was firmly established. Mayors, Governors, Judges, leaders of finance, such as J. Peter Grace, Jack Burke, John Phelan, who served as the President of the New York Stock Exchange and served as the Presidents of the Society or were a regular guest at the Anniversary Dinner.

Membership and invitation to the Anniversary Dinners were coveted. Charities became very formalized. Rather than the private donations to individuals and to families, the Society began giving to established charities, such as Catholic Charities and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

This charitable giving rose to a substantial level but then plateaued, and during the Presidency of Bill Cronin in 1998, the actual charitable donations doubled.

The presence of families and how the important relationship of father to son and grandson is so evident by those who attend the Anniversary Dinners.

The customs and practices and traditions of the Society are very important. Among the traditions is the passing of the medallions of the Officers. At the annual meetings each year, as the Officers' positions are held, the President passes his medallion to the successor.

In the early times of the Society, all members were issued badges and were required to wear them to each of the quarterly meetings. If they did not appear, they were fined. But that practice had died out by at least 1805. Apparently, this was also the practice of the Chamber of Commerce in New York. But given that, in that case, it has a commercial interest, it did not survive in a charitable and fraternal setting.

It has been a long tradition to hold four meetings per year, with a social portion and entertainment.

As previously stated, at first the Society's membership was limited to one hundred. By 1898 the number had grown to five hundred. And it is one thousand Active Members today. At least for the past century, names of those proposed for membership have been included on the "green sheets", which are sent out with the notice for the November stated meeting.

By 1789, ushers were in a position of trust to organize the dinner. The ushers were the predecessors of the current Board of Stewards who organize each of the meetings and organize most splendidly the Anniversary Dinners.

The song sung at the opening of each one of the meetings, "The Hail of the Friendly Sons," is an important tradition. The words are by Joseph I.C. Clarke, who had served as President of the Society. The music was by Victor Herbert, who also had served as President of the Society, and was a very famous composer of operettas.

The custom of yearbooks dates at least from 1897 to the present. But the first publication of proceedings of the Society goes back to 1860. The yearbooks contain the transcript of the meeting, the roll of members, and the Memorials.

The practice of appointing Memorial Committees at least goes back to 1925, as well as the practice of placing paid obituaries for deceased members, which appear now in The New York Times.

A recent tradition, of course, has been the publishing in the yearbooks of photographs of Saint Patrick around New York City. 

The Anniversary Dinners at first had as many as thirteen toasts. We now have three toasts, "To the President, "To the United States," and "To the Day We Celebrate."

Among the noted speakers who have graced the dinner include in 1837, Daniel Webster, Henry Ward Beecher, Senator Chauncey DePew who spoke twenty-five times, President Grover Cleveland, President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft, Alfred E. Smith spoke twenty times, John McCormick who actually also sang at one of the Anniversary Dinners, Eamon De Valera, President Woodrow Wilson and Bishop Fulton Sheen.

In fact, Bishop Fulton Sheen gave a very famous speech at our Anniversary Dinner. The substance is: "There is a world of difference between blarney and baloney."

"In order to understand the subject, I want to make a few distinctions tonight between blarney and baloney. Blarney is the varnished truth. Baloney is the unvarnished lie." "Blarney is flattery laid on just thin enough to like it. Baloney is flattery laid on so thick we hate it."

Other speakers include James Farley, President Theodore Roosevelt, the great Reverend Robert I. Gannon, S.J., Attorney General Tom Clark, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Laurence McGinley, S.J., President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Mayor Abe Beame, Governor Mario Cuomo, Coach Lou Holtz, Justice Antonin Scalia, and of course the great Judge William Hughes Mulligan, whose speeches are legendary.

It appears that the larges attendance ever at a dinner was in 1949, two thousand five hundred and ninety-nine attended the dinner when President Harry Truman was the speaker. The next largest attendance appears to have been in 1988, twenty-five hundred, Justice Scalia and Lou Holtz.

Up until 1993 each person attending received at their place a little box with cigars in it.

The tradition of the name plate continues to this day, the place cards. Apparently at some point in the 1930's, the dinners were broadcast on radio nationwide. 

Victor Herbert, who had been President of the Society, is the only President, or the only member of the Society, who actually had a U.S. Postage Stamp issued with his likeness on it. And there is a sheet of those postage stamps on display at the American-Irish Historical Society.

The Society also is responsible for the installation of two sculptures in New York City, the bust of the poet Thomas Moore, was erected at the institution of the Society in 1879. It is in Central Park near the 59th Street corner by the Plaza, as well as a bust of Victor Herbert, which appears near the bandshell in Central Park.

The Society has only marched in the St. Patrick's Day Parade once, in 1919, although numerous members of the Society have served as Grand Marshals.

What we have tried to convey is a sense of the history of this marvelous Society, founded on the noble rock of charity, strengthened by a common heritage and faith, nurtured by the joy of a shared meal and conversation, enlivened by humor, poetry and song, transmitted by father to son to grandson, tempered by tolerance towards political and religious difference, fortified and guided by tradition and respect and memory.

As the Society progresses proudly into its fourth century, its future is rich in promise because we cherish the priceless inheritance of the past.

Past Presidents

  • 2018 - 2019 Kevin J. Rooney
  • 2015 - 2017Matthew T. McLaughlin
  • 2013 - 2015John C. Walton
  • 2011 - 2013Mark B. Codd
  • 2009 - 2011Thomas M. O'Brien
  • 2007 - 2009Brian M. Murphy
  • 2005 - 2007Alfred E. Smith IV
  • 2003 - 2005Robert J. Reilly
  • 2002 - 2003John H. FitzSimons
  • 2000 - 2001Timothy G. Reynolds
  • 1998 - 1999William J. Cronin
  • 1996 - 1997Victor D. Ziminsky
  • 1994 - 1995Edward J. Burke
  • 1992 - 1993Thomas A. Brennan, Jr.
  • 1990 - 1991Peter P. Mullen
  • 1988 - 1989John T. O’Hagan
  • 1986 - 1987John J. Phelan, Jr.
  • 1984 - 1985William Hughes Mulligan
  • 1982 - 1983Bernard F. Curry
  • 1980 - 1982Thomas A. Coleman
  • 1978 - 1979Lawrence X. Cusack
  • 1943 - 1944Edward A. Arnold
  • 1941 - 1942Joseph F. Higgins
  • 1939 - 1940Edward J. Glennon
  • 1937 - 1938John F. Collins
  • 1935 - 1936George Keegan
  • 1931 - 1934James A. Foley
  • 1929 - 1930Francis Martin
  • 1927 - 1928John P. O’Brien
  • 1925 - 1926James J. Hoey
  • 1923 - 1924Henry L. Joyce
  • 1920 - 1922Daniel F. Coholan
  • 1917 - 1919Victor J. Dowling
  • 1915 - 1916Victor Herbert
  • 1913 - 1914Edward E. McCall
  • 1911 - 1912John J. Delaney
  • 1909 - 1910Wm. Temple Emmet
  • 1903 - 1905James Fitzgerald
  • 1900 - 1902James A. O’Gorman
  • 1897 - 1899Morgan J. O’Brien
  • 1895 - 1896James S. Coleman
  • 1892 - 1894John D. Crimmins
  • 1890 - 1891David McClure
  • 1888 - 1889Joseph J. O’Donohue
  • 1885 - 1886Joseph J. O’Donohue
  • 1878 - 1884Charles P. Daly
  • 1875 - 1876Thomas Barbour
  • 1871 - 1874John R. Brady
  • 1863 - 1864James T. Brady
  • 1860 - 1862Charles P. Daly
  • 1857 - 1858Samuel Sloan
  • 1853 - 1856Joseph Stuart
  • 1851 - 1852Richard Bell
  • 1843 - 1850James Reyburn
  • 1839 - 1842Dr. Robert Hogan
  • 1835 - 1838Campbell P. White
  • 1828 - 1833John Chambers
  • 1797 - 1827Daniel McCormick
  • 1793 - 1794Daniel McCormick
  • 1789 - 1790William Constable
  • 1784 - 1788Daniel McCormick