Savannah's Irish community has been commemorating St. Patrick's Day for almost 200 years, but one thing you'll notice about those groups promenading through the squares in their green jackets: They're mostly men.
Not that anyone can deny women’s role in the festivities—all those before-Mass breakfasts don’t cook themselves.
But it wasn’t until 1986 that Savannah’s Irish women formed their own heritage society, after Margaret “Peggy” Fountain—inspired by Grand Marshal William L. Fogarty’s speech at the 1986 Celtic Cross ceremony—gathered some friends to make it official. They called themselves the Daughters of Ireland, vowing to serve their community and recognize those who struggled before them.
“I’m very proud of my ancestors for what they contributed to America,” says current DOI president Betty Schwarz, who traces back her family roots back to Belfast.
“They were determined and proud, and we do our best to honor them.”
The Daughters make charity a priority at their quarterly meetings, and members spend the year raising funds for St. Vincent’s Academy scholarships and helping the nuns of the Social Apostolate Home with their Christmas banquet. Of Savannah’s two ladies-only Irish organizations, DOI remains the largest at around 250 members as well as the single stand-alone institution. (The local chapter of the national Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, formed in 1989 with 85 current members, is an auxiliary of the centuries-old men’s order.)
The Daughters participate in multiple events throughout the St. Patrick’s Day “season” that starts in mid-February with the Savannah Irish Festival. They figure prominently in the Celtic Cross procession at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where officers wear thick velvet sashes embroidered with a claddagh symbol, a reminder of the trust, friendship and loyalty inherent to their legacy.
But Schwarz, who also retains membership in the local chapters of Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, promises it’s not all serious business.
“Oh honey, we have FUN,” cackles the Virginia native also known as “Sunshine” by her DOI cohorts.
In addition to hosting oyster roasts and a yearly luncheon for the wife of the parade’s Grand Marshal, the Daughters take care of their own. A few years ago Schwarz instituted the tradition of the “Irish Queens”: When a DOI member turns 80, they never have to pay dues again and are given special treatment at all functions.
“We wait on them hand and foot,” laughs Schwarz. “And they’re addressed as “the Queen” forever!”
Native Savannahian Sheila Winders isn’t quite ready for her Queen crown yet, but at 71, she already plans to enjoy it.
“I might even dye my hair red for a year,” she chortles with more of that famous DOI laughter.
A DOI member since the late 1980s, Winders has a solid stake in Savannah’s Irish community, with grandchildren at BC and past Grand Marshals on both sides of her family tree. She’s been to Ireland 17 times as a travel agent and will return again this July. She is also the author of Irish Savannah, recently published as part of Arcadia’s Images of America series.
While Winders counts the holy atmosphere of Mass as her favorite part of the St. Patrick’s season, she also considers hilarity a part of her heritage.
“I love the wicked sense of humor,” she says. “There’s an old saying: ‘An Irishman can tell you to go to hell and make you look forward to the trip.’”
The mission of the Daughters of Ireland crosses the generations, and the group has welcomed dozens of younger members in the past few years. Georgia Neal Steinmetz, a busy mom with two teenagers, joined in 2009. She immediately earned her green sash as sergeant-at-arms and currently serves as secretary.
“Being Catholic and of Irish descent, I really wanted to celebrate my heritage,” says Steinmetz, who grew up in Augusta, Georgia. “Not being from here, it was a way to meet more women who want to celebrate that, too.”
Not that you have to be Catholic or even Irish to become a Daughter of Ireland: These ladies welcome any woman with an interest in Irish heritage and laughter. (However, proof of Celtic descent is necessary to hold an executive office—and by that turn, wear one of those covetable sashes.)
“Irish people are very family-oriented, not just the people who live under their roof but the whole widespread family,” confirms Winders.
Adds Schwarz with another inimitable giggle:
“It’s wonderful that in Savannah, you can really be proud of your heritage—no matter what it is.”