Illuminations: The Ancient Order of Hibernians and the 1918 Pandemic

The Ancient Order of Hibernians and the 1918 Pandemic
By:  J. Michael Finn, State Historian

Past AOH State President Joe Casey recently contacted me with a couple of history questions.  Joe wrote:  Okay, here’s one for you….pandemic of 1918; did the Hibernians have a National Convention?  What about 1919? Did Ohio have a state convention?” These are a couple of very good and timely questions. 

To begin with, let’s review the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic timeline – The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe and deadly pandemic in recent history. In the United States, the first mention of influenza appears in an April 5, 1918 weekly public health report.

The report informs officials of eighteen severe cases and three deaths in Kansas. The first wave of the virus stuck mostly soldiers grouped together in camps waiting to be sent to Europe.

Between September and November 1918, a second wave of flu peaked in the United States.
This second wave was highly fatal, and responsible for most of the deaths attributed to the pandemic.  A third wave of the influenza struck during the winter and spring of 1919, killing many more. The third wave subsided in the summer of 1919 and the virus disappeared.

It is estimated that about 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with the Spanish Flu virus in 1918-1919. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide, with about 675,000 occurring in the United States (my aunt, Mary Finn, a department store clerk, died of the flu at age 17 in Cincinnati in December 1918).

By the way, the 1918 flu was called the Spanish Flu, although it did not originate in Spain. Many historians agree that the flu began in the US at Fort Riley, in Kansas.  The flu then spread to Europe with US troops. To maintain morale, World War I censors ignored or minimized early reports of illness and mortality in the United States and Europe. Newspapers in neutral Spain were free to report the epidemic’s lethal effects and these stories created a false impression that Spain was the origin of the virus.

Now, let’s deal with Joe’s questions … There was no AOH National Convention held in 1918.  At the 1916 biennial National Convention held in Boston, it was approved that the 1918 convention would be held in San Francisco in July 1918.  



Spanish Flu Cancels Conventions
On March 21, 1918 the Catholic Telegraph (newspaper of the Cincinnati Archdiocese) reported “The officers and directors of the National Board of the Ancient Order of Hibernians will meet in Washington, D.C. on March 25, 1918 to decide whether the National Convention of the Order, which was scheduled to meet in San Francisco in July, will be convened at all, or whether a more central city be selected for it.”  Based only on the timing of this meeting, it’s clear that the reason for this meeting was not due to the pandemic.  

Further reporting in the Catholic Telegraph on April 4, 1918 noted that the AOH Washington meeting on March 25th had resulted in a resolution passed by the National Board.  The resolution began by expressing the Order’s support of the US War Fund drive and recognized the donation by the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians of Mass outfits for our military chaplains.

The resolution stated, “In this war Hibernians have no doubts, no criticisms of our government – have no confusing speculations or ill-timed illusions as to the policy – endorsing the sentiment: ‘Our country – may she always be right – but right or wrong, our country.’” 

The resolution also recognized that all Hibernians realize that the success of their enterprises demand the full play of two factors, “intelligent energy and sound practical patriotism.”

Finally, the resolution concluded by stating, “On account of the international situation, the Board was opposed to holding the National Convention in San Francisco this year, but it was decided to leave the question to a referendum vote of the men’s divisions of the Order throughout the country.” Again, there was no indication that the coming flu pandemic had any impact on the decision to cancel the convention. We can say the reason was only “sound practical patriotism.”

The subsequent vote of the membership was agreeable to cancelling the 1918 convention.  It was decided that the convention would instead be held in San Francisco in July 1919. The next National Convention was held in 1921 in Detroit.  From 1919 until 1942 the National Convention was held on the even numbered years.

Following the lead of the National Organization, the State Convention in Ohio was also cancelled for 1918. In those years the biennial State and National Conventions were both held in the same year (the current practice of holding the state convention in the odd numbered year was not adopted until 1975). 

In Ohio, the State President, Edward W. Dowling from Dayton, who was elected at the 1916 State Convention held at Zanesville, actually served a three year term from 1916 until the 1919 State Convention held at Cedar Point, when Martin L. Sweeney of Cleveland was elected as State President.

For World War II the 1941 National Convention was held in St. Paul, Minnesota. The National Conventions for 1943 and 1945 were cancelled due to the war. The 1946 National Convention was held at Syracuse, N.Y. and this put the biennial National Convention back on the even numbered years.  The same convention cancellation schedule was followed in Ohio.

In June it was announced that the 2020 National AOH/LAOH Convention, scheduled for July in Orlando, Florida has been cancelled, this time due to Covid-19 concerns.  Instead, the convention will move to a virtual convention.

If you would like to read more regarding the 1918 Pandemic, the book generally regarded as the best is “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History” by John Barry (Viking Press, 2004). 

On the AOH National website is a list of past national presidents, their dates of office, and the convention dates and locations put together by Brother Gerry Curran.

Thanks to Brother Casey for his excellent question.  If you have any questions on state AOH history or Irish history, please feel free to contact me at [email protected].

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