American Irish Historical Society Building Saved From Being Sold After Massive Public Outcry, Online Petition

The American Irish Historical Society building on Fifth Avenue (Photo by Michael Dorgan)
The American Irish Historical Society building on Fifth Avenue (Photo by Michael Dorgan)

Michael Dorgan Twitter thumbnailDec. 27, 2022 By Michael Dorgan

The fight to save the American Irish Historical Society (AIHS) Building on 5th Avenue from being sold appears to have been won – following a huge public outcry and appeals from advocates on both sides of the Atlantic.

The iconic Gilded Age townhouse was put up for sale in January 2021 drawing ire from Irish Americans but the New York State Attorney General’s Office (OAG) has announced a plan that would safeguard its future and reform the non-profit’s board.

The plan stops the potential sale from going forward and sees a new four-person interim board replacing the current board at the AIHS. The new board members are serving voluntarily and will not receive compensation.

The plan will also see the Irish government allocating up to $300,000 to cover the costs of utilities and other essential services during the transition period where the interim board will also be responsible for securing and assessing the society’s assets.

The building has been home to the AIHS for decades and houses a library and research facility with thousands of rare Irish books and documents.

However,  the outgoing board oversaw a tumultuous period for the society in recent years which ultimately saw its finances dwindle – exacerbated by the onset COVID-19 pandemic — and then the board put the building up for sale sparking backlash from Irish Americans.

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Brian McCabe, the society’s former chair who had pushed for reforms in the society before he was fired from his role in 2019, also alerted the attorney general’s office to what he said were financial irregularities, as well as his concerns about the integrity of the society’s collection. The attorney general’s office is responsible for reviewing the sale of any property owned by a charity.

Brian McCabe and Sophie Colgan
Brian McCabe and Sophie Colgan

In March 2021, McCabe, and Sophie Colgan, the society’s former marketing co-ordinator, started an online petition opposing the sale of the society’s mansion. The petition generated more than 40,000 signatures and put pressure on the Attorney General to intervene. The Attorney General’s Office cited the petition Monday while announcing its new plans

McCabe and Colgan spoke about their efforts to stop the sale in a previous edition of The Long Hall Podcast – watch here.

The Attorney General’s Office looked into the organization’s operations which culminated in this week’s announcement. The OAG did not say if it discovered any financial impropriety.

“Following the news that the townhouse was up for sale, OAG received a petition with more than 40,000 signatures opposing the sale, many citing the townhouse’s central importance to both the organization and the community,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said.

“The OAG and AIHS then began working together on a restructuring plan to allow AIHS to keep the townhouse headquarters and continue serving the Irish and Irish American communities.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James at St. Pats For All (Photo by Michael Dorgan)
New York Attorney General Letitia James at St. Pats For All parade in Queens earlier this year (Photo by Michael Dorgan)

The American Irish Historical Society was founded in 1897 to keep Irish and Irish American contributions secure in memory. By 1940, the society had enough money to buy a five-story townhouse on 5th Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, according to the New York Times.

As the years passed, the society settled into relative irrelevance, its many books and artifacts infrequently read or seen. Then, in the mid-1970s, Dr Kevin M Cahill, a tropical-disease expert celebrated for his humanitarian work, became its president general.

He revitalized the society in part by holding annual galas at which gold medals were awarded to the esteemed and deep-pocketed. And every March, standing on the townhouse balcony in morning coat and surrounded by select guests, he seemed almost to preside over the St Patrick’s Day parade as it moved up Fifth Avenue.

Along the way, Cahill family members and loyalists joined the board, and one of the doctor’s sons, Christopher, became its well-compensated executive director.

American Irish Historical Society (AIHS) Building Photo by Michael Dorgan
American Irish Historical Society (AIHS) Building Photo by Michael Dorgan

When Cahill decided to step down a decade ago, a series of prominent Irish Americans succeeded him, only to discover what they later described as an underachieving organization that didn’t do much beyond holding an annual gala and providing a Cahill scion with employment. Once they raised their concerns, they said, they were pushed out.

Among those ousted were McCabe, Colgan and James Normile, the former president.

In 2019, McCabe, a former New York City homicide detective sergeant, and Normile pushed for an immediate reorganization. This would include mandatory counseling and a reduced role for Christopher Cahill, who had recently threatened a well-known Irish director at an event in the mansion.

Instead, Normile and McCabe joined the growing list of reform-minded officials who were ousted by the Cahill-controlled board.

Only this time, they fought back which ultimately led to this week’s announcement.

John Keefe, who the OAG describes as an expert in nonprofit rehabilitation, has been named as the new interim executive director.

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The three other new board members consist of Elizabeth Stack, the executive director of the Irish American Heritage Museum in upstate Albany; John MacIntosh, managing partner at SeaChange Capital Partners, an organization that helps nonprofits work through complex challenges; and attorney Gregory P. Pressman, of counsel at the law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel.

The board will tenure will oversee a period of transition and revitalization for six months. It will also be tasked with appointing a permanent board, the OAG said.

Keefe told the Irish Voice that he and his fellow board members aim to attract a new board that will be good at raising money.

“The new board will then define the mission of the organization going forward,” Keefe told the publication.

“My mission, and the mission of the new board, is to prepare the organization, make sure the building is in good shape — which, by the way, it appears in very good shape — and we need to make sure that the financial situation is as good as we can get it so we can attract what I would call a real top-class board.”

Watch our previous podcast on the matter with Brian McCabe and Sophie Colgan below.

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