Dr. Elizabeth Stack, the newly appointed executive director of the American Irish Historical Society (AIHS), has promised full transparency as the society attempts to rebuild public trust following a turbulent and controversial period in its history.
Stack, a native of Kerry, is the former executive director of the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany and took up her role in the AIHS at the beginning of February.
Located in a magnificent mansion along Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue, the AIHS has been embroiled in scandal for years after a former board controversially placed the iconic building up for sale, prompting a huge backlash from the Irish-American community.
The sale was prevented after the office of New York State Attorney General Letitia James intervened and replaced the previous board, but the mansion has remained shuttered for years, leaving Stack with the momentous task of getting the AIHS back on its feet and rebuilding public trust.
"The best thing we can do is be transparent," Stack told IrishCentral. "Filings and financials will be made available.
"I have a proven track record up in Albany and I think most of the community will understand that the intention is there to get it open, to get it accessible, and to welcome people in. That's going to take time.
"We are finding our feet, and working to access everything. I don't want to rush into anything or promise the sun moon and stars and then not be able to deliver."
Stack added that rebuilding trust in the AIHS will be a slow and steady process aided by being transparent and accessible.
She described the AIHS as a "stalwart" of the New York Irish community and said the work the Society has done to preserve Irish history is "amazing", adding that it is pivotal that the Society's vast historical archives remain in New York.
"It's probably a funny building in one way because I would say that a lot of New York Irish haven't visited," Stack said. "They might have gone to a play at the Irish Rep or a performance at the Irish Arts Center, but this felt a little academic or high-brow.
"That's not to say there isn't a place for that. Certainly, we have to encourage academia because we have those archives. That's a fundamental part of our identity, but I think we can widen the circle of who we attract."
She said the furious backlash to the decision to place the AIHS building up for sale several years ago showed how much the Irish-American community cared about the location and prestige of the Society building.
"In one way, I think I underestimated how proud American-born Irish are of having a mansion on Fifth Avenue," Stack said. "I think there's a pride involved in the fact that here we are on Museum Mile. We deserve to be here and worked hard to get here.
"I think it's essential that the archives remain in New York."
However, it will take some time before the AIHS is restored to its former glory.
Speaking from a makeshift office on the ground floor of the stunning townhouse, Stack said there were dozens of small jobs to be completed before the Society could open to academics and the general public.
She noted that the elevator is currently out of service and that the upstairs events space lacks WiFi and a projector for talks and seminars.
Stack, however, is pressing ahead with events at the AIHS, hosting an event with the Celtic Medical Society last week and a staged reading of a selection of John B. Keane's "Letters From a Matchmaker" on Saturday.
The reading was performed by members of the Origins 1st Irish 2024 Theater Festival, which launches on March 23 at the AIHS with a performance of a new Larry Kirwan play.
Love Irish history? Share your favorite stories with other history buffs in the IrishCentral History Facebook group.
The Society will also host the staging of a new play by Irish playwright David Gilna on March 30 about the life of 1916 revolutionary Michael "The" O'Rahilly.
Later in the year, Stack hopes to reinstate a production of James Joyce's "The Dead" around Christmas time in addition to restoring the Society's annual Gala dinner.
She said cultural events, such as theatrical productions and musical performances, will play an important role at the new-look AIHS, which will serve a dual role of promoting Irish culture and literature while simultaneously acting as a custodian of thousands of historical Irish-American documents.
"Even though our mission is to tell of the contributions made by American Irish, part of the curiosity among Irish-Americans is curiosity over where they've come from," Stack said. "We will certainly highlight Irish history and Irish literature and culture."
One of Stack's first priorities will be to restore the Society's website, which is currently inaccessible.
"That's the public-facing element of the Society. We're active on Facebook at the moment and we have an X account, but it's essential to have a website and a database of membership. I would love to connect with people who had previously supported us and just let them know that we're back."
Stack also aims to digitize the AIHS's extensive collection, which features tens of thousands of old books and publications, dating back more than 100 years in many cases.
The digitization, which Stack describes as a long-term project, will serve the dual purpose of preserving invaluable documents and making the extensive archives available to historians outside New York who would otherwise be unable to access them.
"The digitization plan is ambitious just because it's so costly," Stack said. "We are certainly applying for funding. There are several grants from various foundations and American academic sources."
She described the digitization of the vast archives as "very important", stating that varying temperatures of New York - from hot, humid summers to cold winters - are not conducive to preserving historical documents.
"For preservation purposes and ease of sharing, we will digitize everything.
"We're becoming more accustomed to digital and virtual stuff and it plays a big role in preservation. If they're scanned in, they're protected forever. God forbid if something goes wrong, we'll still have a copy."
Stack also hopes to open the AIHS to the general public once again and estimates that it will take around 12 months before the building is ready to accommodate people walking in off the street.
She hopes to install an exhibition about the Irish experience in America and make the AIHS a "landing point for tourists".
"That would be the hope - that we'd be able to allow people to come in and just satisfy their thirst for knowledge about the Irish in New York.
"We're the only place that's able to tell that story through objects and artifacts.
"I would like for us to be a sort of generic landing point for tourists, whether they're from Ireland or Ohio. Maybe they've visited the Met and we're right here, so we should be open on that kind of level as well as being open for public talks and screenings."
Stack also said there is a need to put a number of items currently on display at the AIHS into context, stating that there are several artifacts on display without any explanation of their significance.
"We don't have a lot of the items on display put into context, so you don't know why you're looking at a picture of Roger Casement or Charles Stewart Parnell."
Despite the huge task ahead of her, Stack said she is enormously proud of her appointment as the AIHS's new executive director.
"I'm so proud," Stack said. "My whole job has been writing about the Irish in America and the immigrant experience. I came to this building very quickly after I first arrived in America because of those wonderful archives."