Varadkar remarks on all-male groups in US ‘disappointing’ - former ambassador

Irish women ‘become invisible when history is appropriated in this way’, says Anderson

Former Irish ambassador to the US Anne Anderson, who stepped down  in 2017, stipulated that she be welcomed into the Friendly Sons of St Patrick association as a full member and not just in an honorary capacity. File photograph: Alan Betson

Former Irish ambassador to the US Anne Anderson, who stepped down in 2017, stipulated that she be welcomed into the Friendly Sons of St Patrick association as a full member and not just in an honorary capacity. File photograph: Alan Betson

 

Former Irish ambassador to the United States Anne Anderson has said she was “disappointed” by the Taoiseach’s response to calls to stop sending Irish diplomats to events organised by men-only Irish-American societies.

Ms Anderson’s comments followed the release of an email sent by US-Ireland Alliance president Trina Vargo in which Ms Vargo strongly encouraged the Government to end the practice of sending Irish diplomatic representatives to men-only membership organisation events. “It’s time to drag Irish America into the 21st century,” she said, adding that the societies were not representative of the 36 million Irish Americans.

Responding to the email, Leo Varadkar told The Irish Times a boycott of male-only Catholic events in the US could set a “double-standard” if diplomats continued to attend male-only events in the Vatican, in Muslim countries or at LGBT events.

“I don’t think these are appropriate parallels to draw,” Ms Anderson told RTÉ’s Drivetime programme on Friday.

“You always have to make judgments in diplomacy and you make them in ways that are location specific and situation specific. To say ‘well, we can’t do it in the Vatican or we can’t do it in Iran therefore we can’t do it in America’, I frankly don’t think that stands up.”

First female member

Ms Anderson, who became the first female member of the all-male Friendly Sons of St Patrick association in 2016, said the Government should engage with all-male Irish-American organisations in a “principled” and “clear” manner in promoting the modern and inclusive values of 21st century Ireland. However, she said she did not agree with a complete Irish boycott of groups’ activities.

Describing her relationship with the Friendly Sons of St Patrick association during her four years as Irish ambassador, Ms Anderson said she made it “absolutely clear” as soon as she arrived in Washington that she would not attend the group’s all-male functions and instead, would only show up to the single annual function that was open to women.

“They thought it would be okay just for me to stand there and shake hands and I told them I will address, in a very forthright way, the issue of admitting women to membership.”

“I didn’t say I’m going to boycott you entirely . . . but I made clear my terms of engagement. And it wasn’t always comfortable because I would go along and make my pitch and their reactions varied. Most of the audience received it in a stony silence, some applauded mildly, a small sector applauded enthusiastically.”

Tradition

Ms Anderson, who stepped down as Irish Ambassador to the US in 2017, stipulated that she be welcomed into the Friendly sons association as a full member and not just in an honorary capacity. She also urged the organisation to include ‘and daughters’ in the name following her induction along with 20 other women in 2014, when the Philadelphia chapter of the group marked its 245th anniversary.

“I don’t blame them for holding on to a name like the ‘Friendly Sons’ but for them it’s about tradition. They use all sorts of arguments and basically it comes down to ‘our membership are not ready to move on’.”

Ms Anderson added that she found the concept of hundreds of men gathering together to celebrate St Patrick’s Day without women “really disturbing”. “Here you have hundreds of men assembling in their stylish surroundings, in their black tie outfits, and they are appropriating the history of Irish America in an all male way.

“When you look at the proud history of Irish America, of course there were the men who dug the ditches, they did extraordinary things. But the women, their backs were just as broad. And they worked in the mills and the garment factories and in domestic service and they are erased. They become invisible when history is appropriated in this way.”