Bob Devlin, the recently appointed chairman of the American Irish Historical Society (AIHS), believes the society’s building on Fifth Avenue is the greatest “hidden treasure” in New York.
The experts seem to agree. Just a few months back the AIHS building, located opposite the Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue, received the award for the best renovation of any historical building in New York. It is now unquestionably America’s greatest Irish building.
Among those who have visited recently are Taoiseach (Prime Minster) Brian Cowen, who was so impressed that the Irish government donated major funding to the restoration. The newest AIHS board member is actor Liam Neeson, who has signed on as co-chairman with Devlin, a move Devlin describes as “a great step forward.” Also joining the board is American Ireland Fund chairman Loretta Brennan Glucksman.
Among those who have been honored at the AIHS annual sell-out dinner in November are former President Ronald Reagan, U2 frontman Bono and John Cardinal O’Connor among others.
The society, founded in 1897 to inform the world of the achievements of the Irish in America, is today a national center of scholarship and culture. It serves as a focal point of the contemporary trans-Atlantic Irish experience, a place where current public issues are explored, and where the great renaissance in Irish culture is celebrated in lectures, concerts, art exhibits and a literary journal.
The major renovation is a source of great pride to Devlin, a former CEO of insurance giant American General who is a native Brooklynite and a very proud promoter of his Irish heritage.
He took over as chairman at a time when the venerable old society was desperately in need of a renovation. He used his business and fundraising skills to ensure that happened. So far, $3 million of the $6 to $7 million needed funds have been raised.
Devlin is quick to give credit for the astonishing makeover to Dr. Kevin Cahill, the director general and father of the society for decades.
“It is to Kevin’s eternal credit that he stepped forward at a very difficult time to get the renovation done which was very, very difficult. I give thanks to him and others . We are at the beginning a new era,” said Devlin.
Devlin, who succeeded the legendary Don Keough as chairman, sees his task to finish the restoration and to spread the word to Irish Americans across the country that the AIHS is a tremendous resource for them to avail of.
“We want to bring our culture and our heritage to life for future generations of Irish and this generation also,” said Devlin. “We want to become the center for Irish culture in the United States.”
Devlin brings the business background which is so necessary to build the society back up. He joined American General in 1977 and served in a broad range of senior management positions in operating subsidiaries and the parent company.
During Devlin's tenure as CEO, American General, the third largest insurance company in the U.S., saw its assets grow from $43 billion to more than $125 billion, and its market capitalization swell from $6.5 billion to $24 billion.
The company was acquired by the American International Group Inc. and Devlin left upon consummation of the merger. Currently he runs Curragh Capital Partners, a private equity firm.
In an interview at the company’s Fifth Avenue headquarters, Devlin stressed that much needed to be done to complete the restoration of America’s great Irish building. It is clear it has become a labor of love.
A leading philanthropist, Devlin has donated large sums to Boston College and other educational institutions.
Devlin’s own Irish roots are in County Tyrone, and he is a very frequent visitor to Ireland. His son Matt attended University College Galway for a time which sparked the Devlin family interest in Ireland.
His other son Michael is a co-founder of Curragh Capital and a Boston College graduate. Devlin and his wife Katharine are soon planning another trip to Ireland.
Devlin represents all that is best in the Irish American community, a person who no matter how successful has never forgotten his roots or the desire to give back. The new AIHS is a monument to that commitment.