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Rory Sweetman. Faith and Fraternalism: a History of the Hibernian Society in New Zealand, 1869-2000.

RORY SWEETMAN. Faith and Fraternalism: A History of the Hibernian Society in New Zealand, 1869-2000. Hibernian Society, Wellington NZ, 2002; 228 pages.

Rory Sweetman is a professional historian, commissioned to write a history of 130 years 'of achievement by Hibernians in New Zealand'. There is here both a strength and a weakness, not of Hibemianism, but of the treatment by historians generally of friendly societies.

The strength is that Sweetman was asked to bring his skills and experience to a task of history, not, as has often been the case, as a fraternal insider asked to invent himself as an historian in order that the best possible picture might emerge. The potential weakness is that Sweetman had a close, family connection to his topic in that his father was 'an Hibernian by birth and son of a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians'.

Sweetman's professionalism has, in the main, won through. This is the best social history of a fraternal society I have read in over the nearly twenty years of pursuing fraternal associations on this side of the Tasman Sea. Firstly, it's extremely well written, where, again, many are tedious and prosaic, being compiled entirely from minute books and official management publications. Sweetman speaks of his 'wanderings' after fraternalism's notoriously complex, scattered and incomplete material sources. It's his personal contacts, of course, which enable him to speak of his haman protagonists with sympathy and warmth, without missing their foibles.

And this is the second mason why it's such a good study. It isn't one-dimensional, speaking only of triumphs, ignoring the defeats or less than glorious episodes. Sweetman's approach is not to provide a full-blown social history, but is thematic, reminding me of Green and Cromwell's Mutual Aid, and Gosden's Friendly Societies in England, 18151875. Themes are attractive, because these complex societies have been rendered by academic and media neglect virtually invisible to today's readers. Thus, their multi-sided reality, involving religion, ritual, personal and societal politics, the health industry in general and the Society's own benefits evolution, all need space for separate explanation.

Sweetman begins with chapters related to a word of the Society's original title--the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society--and, though NZ-based, they can be read here with genuine benefit. His last chapter, 'Towards the New Millenium', covers the thirty years to the close of the century and is centred on the period's, mostly forced, administrative and structural changes. As in Australia, these decades were a firestorm for societies involved in medical benefits, life assurance, building mortgages, and credit provision to working families.

The choice pushed by the new breed of economic managers--'modernise or die'--has trivialised fraternalism's past, though, to this reviewer, the issues in the 1980s and '90s were clearly those which bedevilled the previous century. Actuarial competence, involvement in political issues, Catholic exclusivity, and democracy versus centralised decision-making have taken on new contours but have remained the key concerns. There is much here that could be discussed at length, if only because fraternal associations mirror the broader society.
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Author:James, Bob
Publication:Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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