Saint John St. Patrick's Society clings to men-only tradition

A centuries-old men-only club in Saint John is continuing to refuse to allow women entry to its annual St. Patrick's Day banquet.

Female journalist has been allowed access to observe keynote speaker at men-only dinner, but can't participate

Journalist Julia Wright was at first refused entry to a St. Patrick's Day event in Saint John, because it was men-only. (Brock Jorgensen)

A centuries-old, men-only club in Saint John is continuing to refuse to allow women entry to its annual St. Patrick's Day banquet.

One determined female journalist, Julia Wright, has been allowed access to observe the keynote speaker, but is not permitted to participate in the festivities.

Wright called the St. Patrick's Society, which bills itself as a club of "gentlemen of Irish descent," earlier this week.

"I asked if there were tickets available," she said.

"He told me, 'Well, you better tell me who you're buying them for, because it's a men's dinner. There's no women allowed. We are a society of gentlemen.'

"It was the first time in my life for being turned down for an event, based solely on me being a woman," she said.

As a writer, who recently covered the Dennis Oland murder trial for Vice Canada, Wright became interested in the dinner after hearing about the keynote speaker.

Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy, of Nova Scotia's Supreme Court, is the guest speaker at the St. Patrick's Day Banquet in Saint John. (CBC)
Chief Justice Joseph Kennedy of Nova Scotia's Supreme Court, is scheduled tp be the keynote speaker. Kennedy is an outspoken advocate for improving court-media relations.

"So this interested me," she said.

Wright persevered, putting more questions to society member Hugh Fitzpatrick, a former Saint John city councillor and a member of the society who has reportedly been attending the dinner for 51 years.

She said his responses did not help to explain the situation. He told her he wasn't a chauvinist.

"I asked if the dinner would be served by women," said Wright.

"He said, 'Yes.' But he still refused to sell me a ticket."

'Last-bastion, men-only dinner'

Wright, undeterred, reached out to John Barry, a Saint John lawyer and member of the society.

"He described it as a sort of last-bastion, men-only dinner," said Wright.

"He said the decision didn't rest with him. He would have to check with his executive."

Wright said that Barry later came back with an apology and he told her she could attend.

But she said, it was made clear to her that she would be there as a journalist, not as a guest.

Wright will be the first woman to pull back the curtain on one of the oldest all-male traditions in the City of Saint John.

Wright said she's permitted to observe the event, in her professional capacity as a member of the media.

"But I'm not allowed to participate in the dinner," she said.

Fitzpatrick told CBC News 255 tickets have been sold to the event. He had no reservations about refusing Wright.

He says it's in the society's constitution that they are a a society of gentlemen. 

Just because a practice is long-standing doesn't mean it's not worthy of scrutiny,- Julia Wright
Founded in 1819 to provide assistance to the wave of Irish migrants who transformed Canada's oldest incorporated city, the St. Patrick's Society was reconstituted in 1910, according to archived notes from the New Brunswick Museum.

Wright will be the first woman permitted to attend the dinner in an official capacity. 

Wright says she's interested in witnessing an evening that has remained a mystery to women on the outside.

"Just because a practice is long-standing doesn't mean it's not worthy of scrutiny," she said. 

Decades ago, a female mayor of Saint John snuck into the event.

Coun. Shirley McAlary said she remembers the days when Elsie Wayne wouldn't stay out.

Wayne was the first female mayor elected in Saint John in 1983.

McAlary says Wayne managed to sneak her way into the dinner by hiding inside a box that was delivered with a cake.

"I think she made her point," said McAlary.

Still, the policy didn't change.

Not the only dinner that bars women

Another all-men's club in Saint John is the Saint Andrew's Society, founded in 1798.

David Nickerson, a past president and the father of two daughters, said women aren't allowed to be members there either.

[Women] have real world problems. Not being able to eat haggis ... isn't one of them.- David Nickerson , Saint Andrew's Society

He said women are not welcome at the society's annual St. Andrews dinner, held in November, but are allowed to attend some whisky tastings and Robbie Burns' night.

Nickerson said women have more important things to worry about.

"They have real world problems," he said.

"Not being able to eat haggis twice a year isn't one of them."

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