The hundreds of people crawling Center City bars this weekend in green shirts and shamrock hats probably had no idea there was a real Irish dignitary in their midst - Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton.

Burton, who is also the leader of the Labour Party and the Minister for Social Protection, is on a whirlwind St. Patrick's weekend tour of Philadelphia, Boston and Pittsburgh to promote continued economic ties between the United States and Ireland.

On Saturday afternoon, she addressed about 200 leaders of the local Irish community at a reception in Center City.

"Your support and understanding for Ireland in the quite difficult couple of years we've had. . . has been incredibly important," Burton said, referencing an economic recession beginning in 2008 that saw 330,000 jobs lost, banks fail and the country's massive construction industry collapse.

"One of the things that kept us going was the fact that so many American companies, or companies with American links, continued to invest directly into Ireland."

The Irish economy is rebounding, she said, largely due to high-growth sectors like information technology, pharmaceuticals and medical research - industries with strong ties to Pennsylvania.

In an exclusive interview with The Inquirer, Burton said expanding those relationships was a primary goal of her trip. She was also pushing for immigration reform; an estimated 50,000 illegal immigrants in the U.S. are from Ireland.

Burton described an economic and social landscape in Ireland that sounded strikingly similar to Pennsylvania: Unemployment declining, but still in need of attention. Underfunded pension systems. Debates over minimum wage and social services. More investments needed in education.

Reception attendees said Burton's presence was an honor, and an exciting prelude to Sunday's St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Burton praised the parade organizers for appointing Kathy McGee Burns as grand marshal - only the fourth woman to hold the post in more than 200 years.

McGee Burns said she was "in seventh Heaven" after introducing Burton to her 15-year-old granddaughter.

"I'm so overwhelmed today," said Elisabeth Burns, a student at Upper Dublin High School. "I'm in shock that I just met the Tanaiste [Deputy Prime Minister] and amazed that I can be here with my grandmother, that she knows all these amazing women."

Burton also visited the Commodore Barry Club in Mt. Airy, met with cancer researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, and - a highlight she called "extremely moving" - saw the original manuscript of James Joyce's "Ulysses," housed at the Free Library's Rosenbach museum.

She also touted Villanova University's scholarship in Irish literature, music and culture, and an exchange program with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

"Villanova is a name to reckon with in Ireland - I think almost everyone has heard of it," Burton said.

Later Saturday, she met with Lt. Gov. Mike Stack before jetting off to Boston and Pittsburgh for the St. Patrick's holiday.

Like any polite visitor, Burton thanked her Philadelphia hosts by extending a return invitation.

"With the fall of the Euro, any of you who are thinking of holidaying in Ireland - finally! A good meal and a couple of drinks will be incredibly more affordable," she said, laughing.

It was her biggest applause line of the day.

610-313-8117 @JS_Parks