Top judge went to event snubbed by Tanaiste over ban on women
THE country's second most senior judge attended the "men-only" St Patrick's Day dinner in the US which was snubbed by Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore.
Mr Gilmore said he had deliberately decided not to include Savannah on his St Patrick's Day US itinerary because of the Hibernian Society's policy of only allowing men to attend their annual dinner.
It would also have meant that he would have had to stop his wife Carol Hanney – who is accompanying him on the trip – from attending.
But it has emerged that the Hibernian Society's dinner was attended by president of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns. He was also listed on the programme of speakers at the dinner last Saturday night.
He is also a member of the Supreme Court and is the country's most senior judge after Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Denham.
It is understood that he was attending in his personal capacity rather than in his official role as president of the High Court.
Mr Gilmore's stance on the dinner became a major story in the American media, with newspapers such as 'The Washington Post' and 'USA Today' covering it. And it sparked a political row, with Fianna Fail saying it was a mistake for Mr Gilmore to "snub" the society's St Patrick's Day dinner.
Savannah, Georgia boasts that it hosts the second largest St Patrick's Day parade in the US – with up to 400,000 people turning up in a city with a population of 136,000.
In a further twist, it emerged that Taoiseach Enda Kenny had taken a different stance when he was invited by the Hibernian Society to mark their 200th anniversary on St Patrick's Day last year. He instead sent them a special video message thanking the members for their commitment and hard work, and wishing them continued success in the years ahead.
"All members, present and past, should be very proud of the achievements and history of the society in reaching out to all Irish immigrants and offering the hand of friendship or assistance," he said then.
But Mr Gilmore, who is known for his strong views on women's rights, told a newspaper that there was no point in going to Savannah if one of the major parts of the programme was going to be a men-only event.
"Count me out – I'm not doing it. I don't believe in segregation either on a gender basis or on any other basis," he said.
Labour Wicklow TD Anne Ferris said she fully supported Mr Gilmore's stance and pointed out that many Irish golf clubs were still refusing to admit women as full members.
"It's not just in America we have the problem. There are golf clubs still treating women as second-class citizens," she said.
There was also support from former Fine Gael Education Minister Gemma Hussey, who said that the Hibernian Society in Savannah had barred her from their dinner in the 1980s.
But the Hibernian Society's president William H Bruggeman said he never heard any complaints about the group's men-only membership from Mr Gilmore or his staff.
"That sort of caught us by surprise because he wasn't an invited guest. We'd love to have had him and would have invited him if we knew he was going to be coming this way," he told the Associated Press.
It has been a tradition for Irish ministers visiting Georgia for St Patrick's Day to include the capital Atlanta and Savannah on their itineraries. Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen and former Fianna Fail ministers Noel Dempsey and John O'Donoghue have visited both cities on St Patrick's Day over the past 10 years.
But the Hibernian Society was not contacted this time. This was because Mr Gilmore had quickly ruled out the prospect of a visit to Savannah when told by his officials that it would involve attending their male-only dinner.
Instead Mr Gilmore went to Atlanta and New Orleans, including a dinner by the local Hibernian society. It was open to both men and women.