The most remarkable Irish building in America is the American Irish Historical Society (AIHS) across the street from the Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York.
The Beaux-Arts townhouse was recently renovated at a cost of $6 million, and it now the glittering jewel of the Irish in America.
Its survival and now the fact that it is thriving is due in large part to one man, Dr. Kevin Cahill, who has finally stepped down as the society’s director general, a post he occupied for 40 years. This year he is the society’s medalist at its annual dinner which is taking place this week at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
So on this, his final year, Cahill will accept the society’s medal, a well deserved tribute to his outstanding role in keeping the AIHS functioning and vibrant through good times and bad.
There simply would not be an American Irish Historical Society without Cahill’s drive and energy over the past 40 years. He took over an organization many feared was in terminal decline, with many anxious to sell its Fifth Avenue headquarters for a pittance.
Cahill understood its importance as an American Irish institution was far more than its real estate value. Thanks to him it is now a center of Irish culture in the U.S. where luminaries such as Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Irish President Michael D. Higgins and noted authors such as Tom Flanagan and Mary Higgins Clark found a second home.
It was here that actor Liam Neeson decided to wake his wife Natasha after her tragic death on a Canadian ski slope in 2009. Ronald Reagan, then president of the United States, decided to appear at the society’s annual banquet in the Waldorf.
In his day Theodore Roosevelt was a founding member. George M. Cohan was also a proud joiner.
This AIHS is 116 years old, and this year’s gold medalist is an Irish renaissance man if ever there was one.
Upon completing his medical degree in 1961, Dr. Cahill was awarded a grant to work in Calcutta where he worked alongside Mother Teresa. He served as director of clinical tropical medicine in Egypt and Sudan while in the U.S. Navy and continued active medical research for the next 40 years in Africa, Latin America, the Near and Far East, with long-term programs in Somalia, Sudan, India and Nicaragua.
From 1975-‘81, Cahill served concurrently as the special assistant to the governor for health affairs, chairman of the Health Planning Commission, and chairman of the Health Research Council of New York State. From 1981-‘93 he was a senior member of the New York City Board of Health.
Cahill has written and edited 29 books and more than 200 articles on subjects ranging from tropical disease to humanitarian and foreign affairs, Irish literature and public health. He counted President Reagan and Pope John Paul II as his patients.
While the medical world knows his importance, his real legacy is also in the American Irish field which has benefited greatly from his insight and commitment to his heritage.
The AIHS’s formal purpose, as stated on its website, is "to place permanently on record the story of the Irish in America from the earliest settlement to the present day, justly, impartially, fully, and sympathetically correcting neglect and misrepresentation by certain historians of the part taken in the founding, upbuilding and safeguarding of the Nation by persons of Irish birth and descent."
Few have typified that spirit and commitment to heritage more than Dr. Kevin Cahill.