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Irish fraternal organizations were influential in their communities during the 19th and 20th centuries. Their mainstay in American society is due to the fact that they assisted new immigrants in transitioning to living in their adopted country. Several fraternal organizations rose to prominence such as Ancient Order of Hibernians, Knights of Columbus, and Catholic Daughters of the Americas, however thousands of smaller organizations existed for a variety of ethnic groups.

"A New Irish Society", San Francisco Call (17 March 1895). California Digital Newspaper Collection.

“A New Irish Society”, San Francisco Call (17 March 1895). California Digital Newspaper Collection.

A search of the California Digital Newspaper Collection for my great, great-grandfather Matthew J. O’Neill turned up several articles in San Francisco newspapers, including one which mentioned his allegiance to “A New Irish Society” called the True Sons Of Ireland. Matthew was born 1855 in Belmont, California, to Owen and Ellen (Russell) O’Neill. The critical piece of evidence to be gleaned from this newspaper column is that each member present stated their county of origin, which he stated as County Antrim. Based on the fact that Matthew is a second-generation, or child of an immigrant, it would be inferred that his father (or even grandfather) came from County Antrim. This is contrary to family tradition passed down by Matthew’s wife Jane Barre that the O’Neill family originated in County Cork. Antrim is one of six counties that comprise Northern Ireland and in comparison to Cork, they are geographically very far apart from one another.

Yet another part of the O’Neill family history also strikes my curiosity based on this new piece of evidence. Supposedly, Matthew’s grandfather was captain of a British Man-of-war. Without any direct evidence, the fact that the O’Neill’s came from the northern part of Ireland is a favorable piece of indirect evidence and makes this story slightly more possible.

The night before St. Patrick’s Day in 1895, 32 men of San Francisco assembled at the Palace Hotel to form a “grand Irish-American society.” The city of San Francisco was ethnically diverse and included a very large amount of Irish-Americans. Newly appointed chairman P.A. Dolan stepped forward to call the meeting and lay out the intention with patriotic fervor, which was “to repeat our vows, both night and day, to dear old ireland! Brave old Ireland! Ireland far away!”

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Palace Hotel (1887) By C.P. Heninger, San Francisco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Palace Hotel (1887) By C.P. Heninger, San Francisco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Online searching has been unsuccessful in turning up more information about the True Sons of Ireland in San Francisco. So far, no repositories are known to hold any records. There are many organizations named True Sons of Ireland that have formed and dissolved since the mid-19th century. I am excited for what I may find, because records from fraternal organizations can often reveal a lot about your ancestor’s origin and the experience of transitioning in their adopted country.

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Jake Fletcher, “True Sons of Ireland,” Travelogues of a Genealogist, posted 30 Oct 2015. https://fletcherfamilytree.wordpress.com/2015/10/30/the-true-sons-of-ireland/.

Copyright (c) 2015 by Jake Fletcher. All materials protected under the laws of copyright. Do not copy or reproduce without permission.

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