Although Irish societies have been in America for more than two hundred and forty years, the idea of county or local societies is relatively recent. The first appearance of a ‘county society’ came in 1850 when a group of Sligomen came together in New York, but no Leitrim group can be found until several years after the American Civil War. It was then in the decade of the 1870’s that numerous Irish societies were formed in New York, whereas in the previous twenty years scarcely a dozen county or local groups were to be found in the city.
The earliest Leitrim organization came into existence about the time an Irish World article mentioned them in their January 17, 1874 issue
“The Leitrim Young Men’s Association. At a meeting of the Leitrim Young Men’s Association, held on Monday evening, 5th inst., the following were elected: Matthias K. O’Rourke, President, Owen Gilbride, Vice President, James McDermott, Recording Secretary, John Burke, Financial Secretary, Captain William James, Treasurer, Henry H. Flynne, Sergeant-at-arms, Thomas Stack, Patrick Devany and James Kilbride, Trustees.
Unfortunately, we have been unable to find nothing else on the Leitrim Young Men’s Association, but further research will probably bring some more information to light about them. The description, “Young Men’s Association,” indicates that the society was primarily beneficial in character, providing sick and death benefits to young immigrant workers. The concept of a purely social organization was to come much later, and the beneficial nature of these early county societies was not to totally vanish until after World War I, when private and government security plans came into widespread use.
On December 4th, 1886 the Irish World mentions a new name in connection with Leitrim, the Leitrim Men’s Patriotic and Benevolent Association. The paper reported that this society held its second annual ball at the New York’s Irving Hall, a popular spot with the Irish county associations. The event was judged by the association to have been a great social and financial success.
By simple arithmetic we can determine that the first annual ball of the Leitrim Men’s P & B Association was held in 1885, and this pre-dates the incorporation of the society in 1895 by a full ten years. There is no doubt a connection exists between the Leitrim Young Men’s Association and the Leitrim Men’s P & B., but the link has not so far been found. In any event, Leitrim has had a society in New York for almost 120 years.
The Hall of Records of the City of New York still contains the original incorporation papers of the association dating to 1895, and they are in remarkable good shape. It was while examining this document that record of another Leitrim group called the County Leitrim Athletic, Social & Benefit Association was discovered, and whose incorporation also took place in 1895.
One of the biggest events ever run by the Irish Counties in New York was the Irish Palace Building fair held at the Grand Central Palace, Lexington Avenue, between 42nd and 43rd streets, between the 10th of May and the 10th of June, 1897. Twenty-nine counties were represented in an effort to raise funds for the Irish building in the city for cultural and social events. Leitrim staffed its own booth, which was hosted by the following: Rose A. Kiernan, Hannah McGuire, Annie Egan, Mary A. Reilly, Lizzie Kiernan, Mary Curran, Nellie Hackett, Ellie Tully, Rose Kenny, Andrew Haggerty, Peter Lennon, Stephen McFarland, John O’Neil, John McMurray, P.J. McGarry, Joseph Sweeney and Bernard Shanley.
Leitrim could boast afterwards of having one of the most successful exhibits and ranked 5th in total receipts with $1,250. It was an achievement the Leitrim people of New York could justifiably be proud of, since it far outdistanced many of the bigger, more populous Irish counties.
The first time Leitrim appeared in a St. Patrick’s Day Parade was in 1899, and it was but one of three Irish counties that marched. For the next few years Leitrim’s participation was sporadic, but by 1903 it was back in the parade on a regular basis when there were still but half a dozen counties joining in. In 1908 twenty-five counties marched.
Sometimes the society was called upon to host visiting dignitaries from the “old country”, such as in 1900 when Leitrim combined with Sligo to tender a reception for Patrick McHugh, an Irish Member of Parliament for Sligo and Leitrim. McHugh went on to a public speaking tour of several American cities with other “Irish Party” leaders.
Irish sports had always been a great interest to county societies, and Leitrim had been among the organizers of the Irish County Athletic Union. The association ran a “Grand Bazaar” to raise money to build a Gaelic sport athletic ground in New York City, and Leitrim helped by running its own “Irish Night” on July 18th, 1907 at the I.C.A.U. Headquarters at 341 West 47th Street.
At the 1911 Annual Ball of the Association, held in the Central Opera house in January, the fast growing Leitrim Ladies Association presented an Irish flag to the men through its President, Rose Kiernan. Leitrim President, Andrew Haggerty, in turn presented to William Reilly a diamond ring for selling the most tickets to the Ball, an affair the Irish World described as ‘one of the most successful of the season’.
Just how successful the earlier fund-raising efforts of Leitrim and the other counties had been towards acquiring a Gaelic sports field could be seen in the games Leitrim hosted on September 14th, 1919. The new grounds of Celtic Park in Long Island City were the principal Irish sporting park for many years and the site of the annual Leitrim Games.
We have set out only to briefly skim over the early years of the Leitrim Association, and it is perhaps no more appropriate to choose from 1921 our final item. For in that year, despite or perhaps because of the fight for independence being conducted in Ireland, the association was at the very top of its prestige and popularity. The 36th Annual Ball, held at the Central Opera House, needed three halls and three bands to contain the crowd. Indeed, the association President, Peter Curran, felt a special pride as he looked out on the faithful sons and daughters of Leitrim who had never forgotten their ancestral home.