I recently visited Charleston, South Carolina, for the first time, and anyone with an interest in Irish history or architecture cannot help but be struck by the massive, Greek-columned Hibernian Hall on Meeting Street.
Hibernian Hall, which is a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1840 for the Hibernian Society, an Irish benevolent association founded in 1801. The Hibernian Society celebrates its non-sectarian identity, alternating between Catholic and Protestant presidents.
The Hibernian Society was originally founded in 1799 by a group of Irish Protestants, but when it was reorganized in 1801, it included prominent Charleston Catholics. Father Simon Felix Gallagher, a Catholic priest, was its first president. David Gleeson writes that Protestants and Catholics in the southern United States each recognized the other’s Irishness. “This broad definition of Irish in the South survived in large part because Irish and Irish-American Protestants continued to claim it,” he notes. “Protestants stayed active in Hibernian societies, and also in Irish charitable societies and militia units. Most important, they remained strong supporters of Irish nationalism. Many had Irish roots in the radical politics of the United Irishmen.”
Charleston’s Hibernian Society serves to emphasize the wide variety of experience of both Protestant and Catholic Irish in America. While the Scotch-Irish were closely associated with nativist and anti-Catholic organizations such as the Know-Nothings, American Protestant Association, Order of United American Mechanics, American Protective Association, American Orange Order, and the Ku Klux Klan, they could also be found working with and identifying with Catholic Irish in the United States.
The National Park Service notes that the Hibernian Hall is also known for its associations with the momentous 1860 presidential election: “The Hall is the only extant building associated with the National Democratic Convention of 1860, one of the most critical political assemblies in this nation’s history. Hibernian Hall served as the convention headquarters for the faction supporting Stephen A. Douglas. It was hoped that Douglas would bridge the gap between the northern and southern delegates on the issue of extending slavery to the territories. The first floor of the Hall was used for meetings, while the second floor was filled with hundreds of cots for the delegates. The convention disintegrated no candidate was able to summon a two-thirds majority vote. This divisiveness resulted in a split in the Democratic party, and the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate.”
David T. Gleeson, “Smaller Differences: ‘Scotch Irish’ and ‘Real Irish’ in the Nineteenth-Century American South,” New Hibernia Review 10, no. 2 (Summer 2006).