The Benevolent Irish Society, 1806-2000

In early 19th century Newfoundland, one of the most active and influential fraternal organizations was the Benevolent Irish Society (BIS). It was founded on 17 February 1806, a month before the Feast of St. Patrick, at a meeting held at the London Tavern in St. John's. Membership was open to adult male residents of Newfoundland who were of Irish birth or ancestry, regardless of religious persuasion. The BIS was a charitable, fraternal, middle-class social organization founded on the principles of "benevolence and philanthropy", and had as its objects the helping of the growing numbers of poor in St. John's, and providing for members' families in need.

The BIS was the first non-secret fraternal society permanently established in Newfoundland. Many of the English merchants returned annually to winter in England, so the Irish who formed the BIS were among the first inhabitants of Newfoundland to consider themselves permanent residents with, as they often claimed, "a stake in the place." Implicit in the objectives of the BIS was the advancement of the social position of its members, and a number of its founding members were members of the nascent colonial élite or aspired to membership in it.

Early Executive Members

While the vast majority of the Irish were Roman Catholics, most of the early BIS executive members were Protestants, and more than a few had military connections. The moving spirit was the Irish merchant James MacBraire, while Captain Winckworth Tonge was its first president, and others like Lieutenant-Colonel John Murray, John MacKellop, Joseph Church, and Captain William Haly were on the executive. The only Roman Catholic executive member was its secretary, Henry Shea. Because quarterly membership dues of four shillings and sixpence excluded all but men of some means, the BIS quickly became an important instrument of upward social mobility for Irishmen in Newfoundland. While the BIS carefully retained a non-sectarian character to its general membership, Roman Catholics joined in increasing numbers until the 1820s when they came to predominate in the organization.

By the 1820s, many BIS members were beginning to play prominent roles in the political life of Newfoundland and the Irish community in St. John's, such as Patrick Kough, Patrick Morris, Timothy Hogan, and John Kent.

Patrick Morris (1789-1872), n.d.
Patrick Morris (1789-1872), n.d.
Patrick Morris was president of the BIS for 15 years.
Artist unknown. From Benevolent Irish Society (St. John's, NL), Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John's, NL, 1806-1906 (Cork, Ireland: Guy & Co., 1906) 54.

After 1833, John V. Nugent, a schoolteacher from Waterford, was the chief political strategist for the reformers in the House of Assembly. Later in the 1830s and 40s, wealthy Irish-Newfoundland merchants Lawrence O'Brien and James Tobin were influential members of the society. Members were forbidden, though, from bringing public politics into the affairs of the Society, and hardly ever did members all "line up" on one political side or another. More typically, very considerable differences of political opinion existed among members, who resorted to the BIS for the social reasons of dinners, receptions, and the ever-popular Feast of St. Patrick in mid-March, rather than for politics. Nevertheless, the society became a powerful force for positive social change.

Orphan Asylum

In August 1823, Timothy Hogan proposed that the BIS establish an asylum "for the support and Education of Orphan Children". A week later, a committee reported to members that the society's patron Governor Sir Charles Hamilton had agreed, and resolutions were entertained to fund the construction of an Orphan Asylum school by subscription, and by a subvention from the society of £100 per year. Furthermore, the sum of £334.4s. was collected from BIS President Patrick Morris, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Scallan, the priests Nicholas Devereux and Thomas Ewer, and members Thomas Beck, Patrick Kough, Timothy Hogan, Nicholas Croke, Aaron Hogsett, Patrick Doyle, Stephen Malone, Henry Shea, William Hogan, John Ryan, Laurence O'Brien, and others. Morris gave £100, while Scallan and Vice-president John Ryan were the next largest contributors at £20 apiece. As the asylum was eventually deemed to be too costly and was not built, the BIS proceeded with a school alone, naming it the Orphan Asylum. Built on Queen's Road on the side of the hill overlooking St. John's, the Orphan Asylum featured a prominent tower observatory, and it was one of the most prominent architectural features of the city in its day.

Old Orphan Asylum, n.d.
Old Orphan Asylum, n.d.
The orphan asylum before 1840. It was non-sectarian and open to any orphan.
Artist unknown. From Benevolent Irish Society (St. John's, NL), Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John's, NL, 1806-1906 (Cork, Ireland: Guy & Co., 1906) 68.

Although by the 1820s almost all the subscribed members of the society were Roman Catholic, the BIS decided that the Orphan Asylum School (OAS) was to be like the society itself: formally non-sectarian, open to orphans "without distinction of country or creed", and a school in which religious instruction was not given. Bureaucratic and funding problems delayed the opening until 1826, when schoolmaster Henry Simms began to teach 136 boys and 70 girls. Attendance grew as the city's working class Irish sought an education for their children, and sought to use that education as a means of social, occupational, and economic mobility.

Wealth and Influence in the 1840s

By the 1840s the BIS had become so wealthy and influential that, next to the House of Assembly and the governor's council, the BIS was able to marshal considerable resources to address social problems and needs. In 1845, president Patrick Morris told the BIS that its funds were "flourishing beyond precedent", which prompted the society's trustees (which included Morris, O'Brien, Kent, Kough, and Tobin) to make a loan of £1,734 to the government with which to build a home for the legislature, the Colonial Building. In 1846, when a potato blight struck small farmers and subsistence farmers in outport Newfoundland, the BIS sent 76 barrels of seed potatoes to help re-establish crops.

Through the mid to late 19th century, the BIS was careful to remain officially non-sectarian, but the society was widely acknowledged as a Roman Catholic men's society. In 1876 it sponsored the establishment in St. John's of the Irish Christian Brothers, and assisted with the maintenance of the St. Bonaventure's College school and the opening of St. Patrick's Hall School. After the BIS's clubrooms, "St Patrick's Hall", burned in the St. John's fire of 1892, the hall was rebuilt with a new theatre, "The Nickle", on the top floor. In 1906, on the centenary of the society, the O'Donel Memorial Wing was added to the east side of St. Patrick's Hall, and the Christian Brothers' St. Patrick's Hall school was conducted there.

St. Patrick's Hall, n.d.
St. Patrick's Hall, n.d.
St. Patrick's Hall before the Great Fire of 1892.
Photographer unknown. From Benevolent Irish Society (St. John's, NL), Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John's, NL, 1806-1906 (Cork, Ireland: Guy & Co., 1906) 34.

Waning Influence

With the arrival of the American Roman Catholic men's fraternity the Knights of Columbus in the nineteen-teens, the influence and appeal of the BIS began to wane. The Society's swan song came in the mid-1990s. The greatest honour ever bestowed on the Society came in 1996 when the Prime Minister of Ireland, John Bruton, visited the Society in The Nickle Theatre on St. Patrick's Day. Two years later, however, the BIS sold St. Patrick's Hall to private developers, who restored and renovated the structure as condominiums. The Society moved to smaller premises.

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