This essay is adapted from the Charleston Post and Courier's "Do You Know Your Lowcountry" column, March 18, 2024.

Charles Town was a diverse colony, with ethnicities and religions of nearly every stripe. Though its state church was Anglican that really meant your taxes went to the church. You could worship however you chose unless, at least until the American Revolution, you were Catholic. Early Catholics were suspected of being in league with the enemy Spanish in Florida, and so were eschewed until the colonies became an independent nation. 

Because Charles Town was so diverse, countrymen established friendly, or benevolent, societies whose missions were to aid arriving immigrants, assist poor widows of deceased members, and generally have a good time eating and drinking. There were the South Carolina Society for French Huguenots, St. Andrew’s Society for Scots, Brown Fellowship Society for free men of color, German Friendly Society, and Hebrew Benevolent Society, to name a few. 

Charleston’s Hibernian Society was founded on St. Patrick’s Day 1799 by eight prosperous Irishmen, both Catholic and Protestant, for the purpose of “true enjoyment and useful beneficence,” according to early records. They met “heart in hand” at one another’s residences every second Thursday of the month to raise or distribute funds for immigrants, and every fourth Thursday to “engage themselves in sentiment and song and supper.”

Two years later, again on St. Patrick’s Day, the organization adopted the name Hibernian Society of Charleston (Hibernia being the Latin word for Ireland). Its seal, illustrated above the hall’s front doors and in its iron gates’ design, is an Irish harp. Its motto non ignara mail, miseris succurrore disco means “Being familiar with misfortune, I learn to assist the unfortunate.” 

The society’s presidency alternated annually between a Catholic and Protestant, a rare collaboration for that time. Nor, after 1801, did members even have to be Irish. The society’s constitution declared membership “open for the admission of respectable persons of any nation or religion,” including Jewish members since the 1830s

The Hibernians built a new hall on Meeting Street in 1840. Architect Thomas Ustick Walter, designer of the dome and wings of the U.S. Capitol, found inspiration in Athens’ Temple of Ilissus for its Greek Revival design featuring six Ionic columns supporting a two-story pedimented portico, though that portico crumbled into Meeting Street during the earthquake of 1886 and was replaced with a few modifications. 

A stone brought in 1851 from County Antrim, Ireland, remains on the portico today. The entrance leads into a large stair hall with a domed rotunda and three tiers of circular balconies featuring Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns. 

The hall has been used for many purposes. The St. Cecilia Society held its concerts and balls here. In addition to Citadel commencement in 1855, other events included a show by P.T. Barnum sensation Tom Thumb (real name Charles Sherwood Stratton, 1847) and a singing performance by President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, Margaret (1917). 

Annual celebrations include St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Day. Notable speakers have included Joe Biden, Gerald Ford, Harry Truman, Dick Cheney, Trent Lott, John McCain, Newt Gingrich, Barry Goldwater, Oliver North and Tip O’Neil.

Yet the most significant event at Hibernian Hall was the 1860 Democratic Convention which the National Register of Historic Places calls “one of the most critical political assemblies in the Nation’s history,” as it set America on the path toward Civil War. As headquarters for those supporting Stephen A. Douglas as the presidential nominee, passionate debates played out in the first-floor hall, while hundreds of cots were set up on the second as sleeping quarters for visiting delegates. Some say the divisiveness within Hibernian Hall led to the election of a relatively unknown Republican named Abraham Lincoln. 

The other two venues that played prominently in the 1860 convention – S.C. Institute Hall and St. Andrew’s Society Hall – were both destroyed in the Great Fire of 1861. Thanks to a last-minute shift in the wind that evening, Hibernian Hall remains the only extant venue associated with the convention. 

Today membership in the all-male Hibernian Society remains as much a badge of honor as ever in Charleston. Its hall is a popular event venue for wedding receptions, parties and fundraising galas. It remains the heart of the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

An 1865 image of Hibernian Hall, showing mortar damage to neighborhing buildings. (Photo: Library of Congress)
The Society's symbol of the Irish harp can be seen above the hall's entrance door as well as in the gate overthrow. (Photo: “ CNB_722.2” Lowcountry Digital Library, The Charleston Archive at CCPL, 1977-1983.)
The entrance leads into a large stair hall with a domed rotunda and three tiers of circular balconies featuring Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns. (Photo: “CNB_722.4” Lowcountry Digital Library, The Charleston Archive at CCPL, 1977-1983.)