SAVANNAH, Ga. — A top Irish government official visiting the U.S. during St. Patrick's Day celebrations said Saturday he skipped a trip to Savannah, home of the largest and oldest St. Pat's parade in the American South, to avoid a dinner where only men are allowed.
Eamon Gilmore, who as deputy prime minister and foreign minister is essentially Ireland's No. 2 politician, instead made stops in Atlanta and New Orleans – where St. Patrick's Day crowds and parades pale in comparison to the nearly 200-year-old celebration in Savannah, which boasts that its parade is the nation's second-largest.
Gilmore told the Irish Times a visit to Georgia's oldest city would have come with the expectation he attend the annual dinner of the Hibernian Society of Savannah, a private event open only to men. The group's leader said Saturday that Gilmore wasn't formally invited but that he would have been welcome.
"Count me out – I'm not doing it," Gilmore told the Irish newspaper. "I don't believe in segregation either on a gender basis or on any other basis."
Early Irish immigrants to the Georgia coast held the first St. Patrick's Day parade in Savannah in 1824, and it has since swelled into a massive street party and tourism bonanza known to draw 400,000 or more revelers a year to the city of 136,000.
"It is not a case of me not wanting to go to Savannah," Gilmore said. "But there is no point in bringing me to Savannah if one of the major parts of the program is going to be a men-only event."
One of several private groups celebrating Savannah's Irish heritage, the Hibernian Society has hosted dignitaries from Ireland and the U.S. since its founding 201 years ago. Presidents William Howard Taft in 1912, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 and Jimmy Carter in 1978 all addressed the group at its St. Patrick's banquet. The Hibernians' feature speaker last year was Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, who oversaw the U.S. military raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.
William H. Bruggeman, president of the Savannah Hibernians, said he never heard any complaints about the group's men-only membership from Gilmore or his staff.
"That sort of caught us by surprise because he wasn't an invited guest," Bruggeman said. "Of course we'd love to have had him and would have invited him if we knew he was going to be coming this way."
Bruggeman said it's the first time he's heard of any government official – Irish or American – avoiding the dinner because it excludes women. Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson has agreed in her two years in office to let the city's mayor pro tem, a man, attend the dinner in her place, saying she respects the Hibernians' traditions.
In the past, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has shown no problem communicating with the Savannah Hibernians. Kenny made no comment Saturday on his government partner's decision. Ireland's 2-year-old coalition government involves Kenny's conservative Fine Gael party and Gilmore's liberal Labour.
But Ireland's major opposition party, Fianna Fail, said it was a mistake for Gilmore to snub Savannah, noting that Ireland usually sends a senior government official to the city. It said Gilmore, as Ireland's senior diplomat, must "regularly visit countries with different values to ours or meet leaders whose policies he disagrees with."
Kenny sent the Savannah Hibernians a video greeting last year, and on Saturday attended the parade in New York, which has been criticized for banning gay-pride messages.
But Gilmore also had supporters back home. Gemma Hussey, who served as a minister in a previous Fine Gael government, said on Twitter the Savannah Hibernians had barred her from their dinner decades ago.
"Well done Eamon Gilmore – those Savannah Hibernians refused to have an Irish woman Minister (me) in the 80's so now they get none," Hussey tweeted.
Associated Press writer Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.