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The Benevolent Irish Society (B.I.S.) was formed in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island during a meeting at the Wellington Hotel on Monday, 18 April 1825. The following officers were elected at the first meeting: Frederick “Fade” Goff (president), Francis Longworth (vice-president), J. B. Palmer (second vice-president), and Charles DesBrisay (secretary). The Society’s first patron was Lieutenant-Governor John Ready, an Irishman who came to PEI in 1824. The first meeting to collect the quarterly dues of two shillings and sixpence was held at the Roman Catholic chapel on Sunday, 8 May 1825. The Society, which met quarterly, was incorporated in 1883. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, independent B.I.S. branches were established in Emerald, Souris, and St. Patrick’s/St. Ann’s (Lot 22). While these other branches eventually folded, the Charlottetown B.I.S. has had 180 years of continuous operation.
When it was founded in 1825, the B.I.S. had three main objectives: to provide relief to the poor regardless of race or religion, “to perpetuate Irish national sentiment,” and “to promote unity and friendship among the Irish and their descendants.” During the first 150 years of its existence, particular emphasis was placed on the first objective. For the purposes of providing public relief and assistance, the Society divided the city of Charlottetown into wards and assigned a charity committee to each ward. Individuals from the community could approach the head of their ward’s charity committee with a request for assistance which would then be brought before the Society for review. During the Society’s earlier years, the B.I.S. carried out numerous charitable acts, often anonymously. In order to raise money for its many charitable activities, the Society organized frequent concerts, plays, and picnics. Typical examples of charitable work performed by the B.I.S. included purchasing coffins, financing funeral expenses, and buying food, fuel and clothing for those in need. The Society also offered a sick benefit for B.I.S. members which could be drawn upon in the event of illness or injury.
St. Patrick’s Day has always been an important event for the members of the B.I.S. Beginning in 1826, the members marked the occasion with a special 17 March dinner. In 1866 the first formal St. Patrick’s Day Parade took place in Charlottetown, and the tradition has continued to the present day. St. Patrick’s Day concerts and plays were also performed annually in Charlottetown for more than one hundred years, and served as fund-raisers for the B.I.S.’s Charity Fund.
The B.I.S. in Charlottetown has held meetings in several different locations during its 180 years. These include the Wellington and Globe Hotels during its earliest years; the St. Patrick’s Hall on Prince Street, the St. Andrew’s Hall, and the St. Dunstan’s Reading Room during the late 1800s; the top floor of the Bank of Commerce Building in 1931; the Whelan Building on Grafton Street in 1944 until it was destroyed by fire in 1951; the Riley Building on Queen Street; and the new Whelan building on Grafton Street between 1952 and 1980. When construction began on the Daniel J. MacDonald building on Grafton Street, the B.I.S. was forced to make several more moves until construction of a new B.I.S. building on North River Road was complete. The Society moved into 582 North River Road in 1984 and this site continues to be home to the B.I.S.
For much of its history, the B.I.S. was only open to males of Irish descent on their father’s side. The B.I.S. had an active Ladies Auxiliary for many years, however women were denied membership in the Society. In 1993, a constitutional amendment to allow women entrance into the B.I.S. was approved and the first women members were inducted into the Society on 7 October 1993. Five years later, Anne Marie Dowling became the first woman president of the B.I.S.
Today, the B.I.S. operates as a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Irish, Celtic, and Island culture and heritage through various social and educational events. Membership is open to anyone of Irish descent who supports the Society’s objectives and meetings are held quarterly. Activities in recent years have included weekly Friday night ceilis featuring traditional Irish and Scottish musicians, singers, and dancers as well as lectures and workshops on Irish dance, language, traditional music and fiddling, genealogy and other subjects of interest. The annual Irish Heritage Lecture Series is one of the B.I.S.’s major ongoing projects and has been presented for almost twenty years. The Society is also active in preparing and presenting briefs on cultural matters and was a major supporter of the Celtic Studies Committee created to advocate for formal Celtic studies programs in the Island’s educational system. In the 1990s, the B.I.S. received an award from the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation for its role in promoting Island heritage and culture. Although the Society continues to respond to individual requests for assistance, the B.I.S. generally focuses its philanthropic activities on more general projects such as the Irish Settlers Memorial in Charlottetown which was completed in 2001. One of the oldest organizations on PEI, the B.I.S. continues to play an active role in the promotion of Irish and Island culture.