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March 13. 2013 10:50PM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Hibernians cherish St. Patrick's Day as time to celebrate cultural heritage


 
As the days lengthen and green returns to our landscapes, the time has come for groggy hibernators to emerge from their lairs.

In northern New Hampshire, bears will soon be plodding about. Here in southern New Hampshire skunks are scurrying along roadsides. And in Manchester, the Hibernians have returned.

The name has nothing to do with hibernation (other than sharing a lot of letters). But Hibernians are emerging throughout this city, almost magically, to march, dance, cook, sing and trumpet everything Irish.

"This is the month of St. Patrick," said William Darcy Biser, a former president of the Manchester division of the Hibernians. "What everybody in our organization has concluded is, it's not just March 17, it's the whole month. Corned beef dinners, concerts, step dancing."

It may be hard to find an organization whose 175 or so members wield so much influence in Manchester, at least in the month of March.

"All of us are really proud of our culture and our heritage," said Scott McQuillen, past- president of the Manchester Hibernians. (Seems like there are a lot of past Hibernian presidents around.)

So with the aid of modern investigative techniques (the Internet) and not-so modern techniques (a pad, paper and an interview), I've uncovered some intriguing facts about those people who bring the green to March.

--Not everyone can be a Hibernian. You have to be a man. You have to be Irish. And you have to be Catholic. Years ago, a Hibernian wannabee had to be invited in by an existing member, but McQuillen said that requirement has loosened up a wee bit.

"If people look us up on the website, come to a meeting, then fill out an application, basically you're in," he said. Of course, you have to pay $25 in annual dues, too.

--There is hope for people who lack Hibernian DNA. One can marry in: Manchester hosts a Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians (don't call it an auxiliary, I've been warned). A few Manchester citizens (including my non-Catholic but very Irish predecessor John Clayton) can earn associate member status. And there are spots for anyone in two Hibernian offshoots: the Hibernian Pipes and Drums and the Manchester St. Patrick's Day Committee, especially the parade committee.

"We would gladly welcome a very ambitious Italian guy," Biser said.

--For those who qualify, there is an induction ritual (no hazing, I'm assured). A new Hibernian must make a secret Pledge before his gathered brothers. The Pledge is the only thing the Hibernians wouldn't share with me, at least verbatim.

But Biser and McQuillen said it includes a promise of fidelity to the Catholic faith and U.S. Constitution. A Hibernian promises to help his fellow member, their families and avoid any slander against them. And they must stand against anything degrading to the Irish.

--The Ancient Order of Hibernians was founded in the United States in 1836. At one point, Manchester had three chapters. But as the country assimilated after World War II, the chapters closed one by one. Then in 1985, four Manchester residents launched the current chapter, after being encouraged to do so by the chapter they asked to join in Lawrence, Mass., said Sean Markey, one of the four.

--Search for the word Hibernians in a database search of Manchester obituaries, and you will find politicians, lawyers, policemen and city fathers. The current membership includes much of the same, as well as everyday working people such as McQuillen (who works in the plate making department at the Union Leader) and Markey, a city Highway Department worker.

--McQuillen said the Manchester chapter is taking the ancient out of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The organization is drawing people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Like him, they're attracted to their Irish heritage.

"I don't think at this point we're going to host a Drop Kick Murphys concert at the Palace, but if someone would organize it, I would go," Biser said.

--The organization raises money for the poor at Christmas. (It actually delivers the toys and gifts to the needy families face to face.) Also, there is an annual golf tournament, Irish music concerts, Irish festivals. But the St. Patrick's parade, scheduled for Sunday, March 24, this year, is the big effort.

"It's probably 51 weeks a year. You take a week off, and then it's back at it," McQuillen said.

--Irish heritage is big with the Hibernians, as is Irish pride. So if you want a Hibernian earful, try to connect the Irish with drinking or brawling.

Hibernians will write letters to the editor if they don't like something in print. They will speak to a store manager about a T-shirt or similar apparel that promotes an Irish stereotype. And the parade committee has eschewed beer endorsements.

Rather, the Hibernians like to promote the history of the Celts, the jigs and bagpipes of the Emerald Isle (which Markey insists are Irish in origin), the poetry of Yeats, and the faith of St. Patrick.

To Markey, this week is overkill. "Hallmark cards, beads, leprechauns, green beer; overdrinking has nothing to do with being Irish," he said. "The whole holiday has been co-opted by the media."

Mark Hayward 's City Matters appears in the New Hampshire Union Leader and Union Leader.com on Thursdays. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.

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