People who visit Albany’s Ancient Order of Hibernians can always count on whiskey in the jar and words in the air.
“This time of year, it’s every day and every night,” said Liam McNabb, president of the Irish social center known as Father Tansey Division 5. The middle of March means St. Patrick’s Day, and that means celebrations, conversations and camaraderie as Irish men, Irish women and their friends wear green ties, sweaters and shamrocks to salute their Celtic heritage.
Camaraderie is the promise at the Hibernian hall in Albany, and at similar buildings dedicated to Irish happenings in Schenectady and Watervliet. McNabb is proud of the Tansey chapter home at 375 Ontario Street, a former Knights of Columbus purchased by the Hibernians during the late 1990s.
“It’s extremely important because this is a cultural home for the different groups here,” said McNabb, 35, who lives in Delmar. “The Michael Farrell school of Irish dance is here, the Sons and Daughters of Erin Pipe Band is here, the Ladies’ Ancient Order of Hibernians meet here, this is their home.”
There’s space enough for everyone. On a recent Wednesday night, there was a group in spirited speech at the bar. A bunch of guys had a quieter time in the closed room connected to the bar. Another assembly met in the building’s great hall.
The Albany Irish need all the room they can get. With a membership of 525, the city’s AOH chapter is the largest in upstate New York and the fifth largest in the country.
This week is one of the busiest of the year, with many Irish looking forward to Thursday and St. Patrick’s Day.
“There are a lot of preparations to serve corned beef and cabbage on the days leading up to St. Patrick’s Day,” McNabb said. “On St. Patrick’s Day, there’s live music throughout the day, dinner served, take-out dinners available.”
Hibernian halls used to be more common in large cities.
“At the turn of the century, there were probably eight or 10 divisions in the city of Albany,” McNabb said. “It was different then because they all walked to their meeting places. Since then, and here we are in 2011, divisions have merged over the years, there used to be a Division 1, a Division 3. We’re now the Father Henry Tansey division, named for a chaplain who died in a car accident around 1980.”
The first Hibernians were all native sons of Ireland. The Ancient Order was founded in New York City in 1836 as an Irish Catholic fraternal organization designed to help immigrants. Some requirements remain — AOH members must be Catholic. The Irish-born requirement was changed long ago; people of Irish descent are now eligible for membership.
In Albany, early Hibernians were serious about keeping a place to gather. “At one time, the old hall was supported because five or six of our members put up their mortgages,” McNabb said. “We have a plaque here that recognizes those members.”
Tansey members used to hang their hats on Quail Street, but few parking spots and a neighborhood in decline persuaded members to search for a new home. Finding and funding the place was one task. Maintaining the place is a task that continues.
McNabb said members keep the hall in shape. If electrical or roof repairs are necessary, members do the work. That’s one reason a strong roster of active members is important.
“Fortunately, we’ve done really well here,” McNabb said. “We’ve just brought in 20 new members, we’ve been very fortunate keeping them active, we’ve been more successful in the past two years than we have been in a very long time, keeping guys around. I think part of that is having a home.”
Out of the 90 Hibernian chapters chartered in New York state, McNabb said, only 17 own their own properties. Kingston Hibernians hope to buy their own home, and recently toured the Irish halls in Albany, Schenectady and Watervliet to see their kitchens, great halls and bars.
“Each one of us does things differently,” said Michael Glenn, past president and current historian of the Schenectady Ancient Order of Hibernians, John F. Kennedy Division 1. “Each of us has our own nuances. We wanted them to see all that.”
“They’ve narrowed their choice down to three halls,” added McNabb, “and given the expense of a facility, I give them credit for pursuing it. It’s a tremendous undertaking.”
The undertaking is worth it, according to Jack Clark. He said Irish people need a place to meet and greet each other.
“In a nutshell, most of our culture centers around a pub,” said Clark, the Tansey Division’s bar manager. “It gives everyone a place to go to meet friends, a place to talk about politics, current events and neighborhood news. It’s a place you can call your home away from home, similar to Ireland. They don’t really drink at home — they go to the pubs.”
Clark said tradition at Irish halls is good for families. Sundays have often been family days at Hibernian places — music and food for parents and their children.
“A lot of the guys are in their 30s and 40s now, and they still call [bartender] Johnny Weir ‘Mr. Weir,’ ” Clark said. “When they were little kids, if one of them came up and said ‘I want a soda,’ he’d say, “You’re not getting one until you ask properly.’ To this day, it’s ‘Mr. Weir, may I please have a beer?’ It’s those values that get instilled here.”
Schenectady’s Glenn said the city’s order of Hibernians was formed in 1880 with 15 members. One of the first orders of business was finding rooms.
“As soon as the division increased its membership and its finances improved, a meeting hall was rented in the Ellis Building at 311 State St.,” he said. “As time progressed and the organization expanded, the division was forced to move to the opera house on Jay Street at Franklin.”
A rent increase forced another move, and the Irish secured new quarters in the Arcade Building at Wall and Liberty streets. “Again, high rents forced them to move to the Imperial building at State Street and Broadway,” Glenn said. Another move to the Union block in the center of downtown Schenectady would follow.
The Hibernians bought their first building, 729-733 State St., during the early 1940s. There were renovations and remodelings over the years. During the late 1970s, the nation’s energy crisis and rising taxes persuaded the group to sell. Hibernians continued meetings in different places.
In 1983, the group bought a hall at 989 Albany St. and stayed into the 1990s. The club purchased its current home at 1748 State St., the former Chase Tool and Supply Co., in 2000.
Glenn said Schenectady was a natural place for an AOH chapter. “Schenectady in 1880 was a hotbed of employment,” he said. “There were a lot of Irish in the region for the building of the Erie Canal. There was a population that was primed for it.”
New immigrants often faced discrimination. That was a chief reason the Hibernians formed.
“They needed to band together and support each other,” Glenn said. “That’s what the organization is all about, people with a common religion and a common ethnic background supporting each other.”
While discrimination against the Irish is no longer an issue, Hibernians have other causes to consider in 2011.
“You still have issues in Ireland that are political and national independence-related, so there’s still a cause they can rally around,” Glenn said.
“There are still economic issues going on in Ireland which holds the interest of Irish here in America. The Hibernians is still a viable organization with a healthy membership because of those issues.”
Dave Carhart, 75, of Latham has enjoyed a healthy membership in the Hibernians. He’s been with the group for 41 years, in both the Troy and Watervliet chapters. He has seen waning interest. “A lot of fraternal and ethnic operations are going away,” he said. “You don’t have people that are interested any more.”
Carhart and about 90 other men and women belong to Watervliet’s John Farrell Division. The camaraderie remains, even if numbers are smaller than they used to be.
“We have things in common; Irish heritage, there’s a dart league and in Watervliet, we all grew up together,” Carhart said.
“But families don’t have time for outside organizations. It’s nothing against the AOH, it’s just that they have other obligations. The husband and wife both work, they don’t socialize the way they used to.”
Hibernians in Saratoga Springs, and the Commodore John Barry Division 1, are still looking for a hall. The group currently meets at the Saratoga Elks Club.
Chris Bergman of Clifton Park, the division president, said there used to be six chapters in Saratoga County. “They basically just disbanded,” he said. “I guess they weren’t very good at recruiting new members.”
The group re-established itself in 1999 and there are currently 100 names on membership rolls. “The motto of the division is fellowship, unity and Christian charity,” Bergman said. “That’s the motto of the national organization as well.”
People still come to the Watervliet hall on 9th Avenue. Carhart thinks more will be coming around, and not just this week.
“Everything goes through cycles,” he said. “I think you’ll see the point where people take interest again, they’ll come back. Italians, the Polish, Germans, people will start taking pride in their heritage. That’s what made America what it was, the groups that worked together and gave America its character.”