Remarks by Ambassador Anne Anderson at the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Annual Ambassador's Reception, 18 October 2016
I have had the pleasure of joining you for your annual Ambassador’s reception over each of the last three years. This is my fourth time to share this special evening with you, and – since I will complete my posting next summer – it will also be my final time.
My thanks to all of you, together with your spouses and partners, for the welcome you have extended to me at these annual receptions. And my sincere appreciation to your President and Secretary, Tim Dugan and Jim Kernan, for their work in ensuring the success of our gatherings.
This evening is special to me in a very particular way: it is the first time I join you as a member of your Society. Tonight, I am proud to wear the blazer that was presented to me by the Friendly Sons of St Patrick in Philadelphia when I was admitted as their first woman member in February this year.
In a memorable and moving ceremony, I was joined by more than twenty other women also being welcomed into full membership. From now on, in Philadelphia, the doors of the Friendly Sons are equally open to men and women.
Perhaps the most affirming aspect of the ceremony was the spirit in which this step was taken. The admission of women was not something wrested from a begrudging membership. On the contrary: it came after an overwhelmingly positive vote, with a shared sense of the appropriateness of taking this step at this time.
The Friendly Sons rightly see themselves as heirs to, and custodians of, a long and proud tradition.
In my annual addresses, I have made clear my respect for the legacy and work of your Society. Your pride in your Irish heritage resonates with us all; you foster a great sense of community among your members, and your Scholarship Foundation has changed many lives.
But perhaps the defining characteristic of the Friendly Sons is the non-sectarianism which your Society embraced from the very outset. Two hundred and forty five years ago, when the founders came together in Philadelphia, they consciously saw themselves as progressives, as trailblazers, in this respect.
For each succeeding generation, there is need to reflect on what it means to be a responsible custodian. Is it to keep things as they always were, or to preserve the essence of the founding vision while adapting and interpreting it for contemporary times?
That debate is of course for you to conduct. But I would just say this. In Philadelphia last February, the cradle of your Society, there was a proud sense of continuity – of keeping faith with the founding vision, being true to the progressive thinking of 1771, but replenishing and renewing that vision for the 21st century.
Especially in this centenary year, it is appropriate to reflect more broadly on the themes of renewal and re-imagining.
In addressing you last year, I spoke about the plans for commemorating the centenary of that iconic year of Irish history: 1916. It was clear from the outset that these commemorations would be especially meaningful in the United States. Were it not for the inspiration and practical support from the US, the Easter Rising could not have happened when and how it did. And, as we all know, the ties have deepened further over the intervening century.
It was important that the centenary commemorations in the US be fully commensurate with the strength of those ties.
As we approach the end of the centenary year, I think we can take pride in what we all achieved together. Across the United States, more than 200 commemorative events were held. Here in DC, the three-week festival at the Kennedy Center – “Ireland 100” – was the largest Irish cultural festival ever held outside Ireland, attracting over 65,000 visitors to hundreds of performances.
And, together, we have done so much more in the nation’s capital: a number of lecture series, a range of cultural offerings, the refurbishment of the Robert Emmett statue on Massachusetts Avenue, resolutions passed in both Houses of Congress.
What was especially uplifting about the events at home and abroad was the spirit which imbued them. There was a clear and conscious commitment to a commemoration that would be inclusive and broadly based, honouring the past but not allowing ourselves to be straightjacketed by it. As well as celebrating the legacy, we would interrogate it.
We did not shrink from asking ourselves some truly searching questions. What kind of country have we become? To what extent have we fulfilled the ideals of the women and men of 1916?
I believe this year-long reflection has helped to re-energise us as a nation, jolt us out of any complacency, and redouble our commitment to a society that is more inclusive, more fair, more reflective of the founding values.
There is no doubt that Ireland faces extraordinary challenges over the next few years – sustaining the economic recovery and ensuring that its benefits are more fully shared, while at the same time dealing with the profound implications of Brexit for our island. To the extent that we can hold on to the spirit of our commemorations, I believe we will be stronger and better equipped to deal with these challenges.
In Irish America too, I sense that feeling of renewal, expressed through so many of the commemorative events. Accompanying all the legitimate pride in the past achievements, there has been a thoughtful reflection on how Irish America redefines its role in 21st century America.
Just as back at home, I see a new energy and sense of purpose in Irish America. A determination to connect even more closely with contemporary Ireland; and to ensure that Irish America remains potent and relevant at a time of rapid demographic and social change in this country.
I believe that this is a reflection that will outlive our centenary year, and that will continue to gather pace. And I am optimistic as to where it will lead, because I truly believe in the creativity, the resilience, and the generosity of spirit of Irish America.
I wish all the very best to the Friendly Sons. I hope that your continued deliberations will lead to an opening of doors in DC in the way that the doors of Philadelphia have already opened. And I know there will be many who will walk through those doors with joy and pride.
Once again, my appreciation to your Society for all you have done, for what you continue to do, and for what you will go on to achieve and contribute in the years ahead.