There will soon be signs of life at the shuttered American Irish Historical Society (AIHS).

New York State Attorney General Letitia James told the Irish Voice, sister publication to IrishCentral, that the grand building on Fifth Avenue and East 80th Street will re-open for a day on Friday, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, as a “symbolic” gesture to show that the venerable location will remain a part of the city’s Irish community for a long time to come. 

James spoke to the Irish Voice on Saturday at the Queens County parade in the Rockaways, where she marches each year “except for Covid,” she said.

James said she’s pleased with the progress the AIHS interim board is making, and that the building will open for a while on St. Patrick’s morning. 

“It’s symbolic,” James said, noting that details are still being worked out. “It’s an amazing place. The books and the artifacts are incredible.” 

The interim board appointed by James in December will submit a preliminary proposal on its findings this week, she confirmed.

“And we are in the process of getting a permanent board,” she added. 

“We had to save it, had to save it,” the attorney general said of the AIHS, which since 1939 has owned a five story Gilded Age mansion with a prestige address, 991 Fifth Avenue and 80th Street, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

New York Attorney General Letitita James at the Rockaway St. Patrick's Day Parade. (Debbie McGoldrick / Irish Voice)

New York Attorney General Letitita James at the Rockaway St. Patrick's Day Parade. (Debbie McGoldrick / Irish Voice)

In January 2021, the AIHS board of directors announced plans to sell the building for $52 million, sending shockwaves throughout the Irish American community.

Under control of the Cahill family for decades – the long-time AIHS president-general, Dr. Kevin Cahill, passed away last year – the AIHS in the years just prior to the pandemic had stagnated and cycled through a number of personnel changes. It has been closed to the public since March 2020. 

James, on St. Patrick’s Day 2021, put the brakes on plans to sell the building, which houses a number of Irish historical books, documents, and artifacts, including an original 1916 Proclamation. 

“The American Irish Historical Society building on Fifth Avenue has been a focal point of the Irish experience in America for decades, and I take the recent concerns regarding the future of the building seriously," she said in a statement at the time. "We are vigilantly monitoring the situation, and I want to reassure Irish communities here and abroad that any potential transaction would not move forward without consent from my office or consent from the courts."

The mansion remained as an active listing – with a price reduction to $44 million – until December of last year, when James announced the appointment of an interim board to secure the AIHS’s future, and the resignation of the old board which since 2022 had been led by Michael D. Higgins Junior, son of Irish President Michael D. Higgins. One of the plans Higgins and his board members discussed was the relocation of the AIHS to upstate New York if the sale of the Fifth Avenue location was closed. 

Now, however, a five-member interim board appointed by James has been working to rehabilitate the AIHS with the goal of keeping it as an Irish mainstay in Manhattan with new leadership. The interim board is led by John Keefe, an expert in the rehabilitation of non-profits. 

James said in a statement on December 19: “Under the leadership of the new interim executive director and board of directors and with oversight from the Office of the Attorney General, AIHS will enter a six-month period of transition and revitalization.

"This period will include an open and transparent selection process to appoint a permanent board, which will stabilize the organization and safeguard its assets.

"Once selected, the permanent board will work with Office of the Attorney General and other stakeholders, including the Consulate General of Ireland, to develop a strategic plan for the future of AIHS."

The Irish government also applauded the saving of the AIHS mansion and committed $300,000 to cover costs while the interim board, whose members are working unpaid, conducts its review. 

On Saturday at the parade, James expressed hope for the future of the AIHS. 

“One-day people can come in there and enjoy it again. We have to sustain it,” she told the Irish Voice. 

And as for the prior board of directors she eliminated, the attorney general said,

“The idea that they were trying to sell it and get away with it…what?” 
*This column first appeared in the March 8 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.