Ambassador is first woman to join 245-year-old Irish society in US

Anne Anderson says Ireland has ‘fallen short’ on 1916 goals for women’s rights

Irish ambassador to the United States Anne Anderson became the first woman member to be admitted into one of the country's oldest Irish societies, the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, in Philadelphia on Saturday night.

Ms Anderson, speaking as guest of honour at the 245th annual St Patrick's Day gala of the society's Philadelphia chapter, hailed the historic move by the group to accept women members, saying there was a "fittingness" and "fundamental rightness" to it happening in the City of Brotherly Love.

“This is a very special night, whose resonance extends well beyond this room and well beyond Philadelphia,” Ireland’s first female ambassador to the US told the society at the annual dinner.

“It is one of these rare occasions when we feel the ground shift and witness the arc of history bend a little.”

Ms Anderson became the first woman honorary member of a society that predates the foundation of the United States at the ceremony at a Aronimink Golf Club in Philadelphia. She joined 20 other woman who were admitted to full membership of the organisation.

Founded in 1771 to provide relief to newly arrived Irish immigrants, the group welcomed both Catholics and Protestants to the country and the signatories of the US Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution were among the group’s founding members.

Ms Anderson noted in her speech that she is only the second adopted member of the society; the other was the first American president, George Washington, who was accepted by the Friendly Sons in 1781.

“There can hardly be a more exclusive club: a membership of two, with the other member being George Washington, “ she said.

The ambassador paid tribute to the Irish women of Philadelphia, daughters of Irish famine immigrants who worked in mills, garment factories, nursing wards and domestic service.

“These women, and those who followed them, were just as courageous, resilient and indomitable as their menfolk,” she said.

Referring to the centenary celebrations for the Easter Rising this year, Ms Anderson said that the Irish people must acknowledge how “we have fallen short” on the goals of the 1916 Proclamation on women’s right and the new Republican’s guarantee of “equal opportunities to all its citizens.”

“We recognise that, for Irish women, for much of the past century, the promise of the Proclamation rang hollow,” she said.

"The feminist Ireland that many of the protagonists of 1916 envisaged was lost to sight over subsequent decades."

She cited President Michael D Higgins in his address last week on the role of women in the Rising calling for the completion of "our collective journey towards the full enjoyment of women's rights."

Praising the decision of New York City’s St Patrick’s Day parade to permit Irish LGBT groups to march for the first time next week, Ms Anderson said that it was “heartening and moving” that Irish America should mark this century with “new steps towards inclusivity.”

“In both instances, Irish America is making a statement: there are no second class citizens, no children of a lesser God,” she said.

Ms Anderson said that 245 years ago, the Friendly Sons grasped something essential in choosing to become a non-sectarian organisation: “that inclusivity enriches us all.”

“Let us celebrate the more inclusive Irish America that is emerging in Philadelphia tonight and in New York next week - an invigorated Irish America, more ready to take on new challenges, better equipped to embrace the future,” she said.

It is not clear whether other chapters of the Friendly Sons of St Patrick across the US, which are not affiliated with the founding Philadelphia chapter, will following the organisation’s lead and admit women.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent