The American Irish Historical Society's (AIHS) new interim executive director John Keefe, appointed this week by New York State Attorney General Letitia James on a six-month basis along with three others who will comprise a temporary board, told the Irish Voice, sister publication to IrishCentral, that the ultimate goal is to keep the property in Irish possession for good.

“The building is no longer for sale,” said Keefe, speaking on Monday afternoon from 991 Fifth Avenue, the American Irish Historical Society (AIHS), which has been closed to the public since the start of the pandemic.

“What we want to do is make sure the building stays with the current non-profit, which is the American Irish Historical Society. It is my personal opinion that there’s a lot more that can potentially be done with the building given the fact that it is on Fifth Avenue right across from the Metropolitan Museum.”

On Monday, James’ office issued a press release on its investigation into the AIHS which commenced in March of 2021, just after the previous board of directors suddenly announced that the building would be put up for sale with an asking price of $52 million, sending shockwaves through the Irish American community.

For decades, the board had been led and controlled by the renowned physician Dr. Kevin Cahill, the president-general of the society who passed earlier this year. But in recent years, with Cahill’s son Chris serving as the day-to-day executive director, governance of the society was called into question with many board members and supporters cutting ties with the institution.

“Irish Americans have contributed so much to New York’s past and present,” said James in the Monday press release. “For decades, the American Irish Historical Society has been a home for the Irish American community to celebrate and honor their culture and traditions. The new interim executive director and board of directors will bring critical oversight to help restore this important organization and ensure it thrives for generations to come.”

The press release added, “In the spring of 2021, AIHS was in poor financial and operational condition that had been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Prior leadership had listed the townhouse headquarters for sale, intending to use the proceeds to address the organization’s financial obligations. As the regulatory body overseeing charities in New York, OAG (Office of the Attorney General) is responsible for reviewing the sale of any property owned by a charity. 

“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. 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.

“Under the leadership of the new interim executive director and board of directors and with oversight from OAG, 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 OAG and other stakeholders, including the Consulate General of Ireland, to develop a strategic plan for the future of AIHS.”

Keefe, who earned two degrees from Harvard University, has spent decades of his career helping “troubled businesses and non-profits to recover,” according to his LinkedIn profile. At the AIHS, he will be joined by three others appointed by James as interim board members for six months – Elizabeth Stack, currently 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 four new board members are serving voluntarily and will not receive compensation.

Keefe told the Irish Voice that he and his fellow board members aim to “attract a new board, hopefully one that will be good at raising money. The new board will then define the mission of the organization going forward.”

“I think 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.”

Though 991 Fifth Avenue has been shut for some time, and AIHS events have been non-existent since the start of the pandemic, Keefe said AIHS finances aren’t in dire shape. On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the Irish Consulate in New York will provide $300,000 to pay immediate bills, but Keefe said there is some cash in the AIHS bank account.

“It’s not a lot. Like many organizations, particularly non-profits, Covid had a big effect. It isn’t a crisis situation by any means, but there’s not a lot of cash around. But on the other hand, expenses are not very high right now,” he added.

The building is exempt from property taxes given its non-profit status, and there are no employees currently drawing a salary. There is a mortgage on the property, “but we are dealing with that and it won’t be a problem,” Keefe said.

All previous board members – including Chris Cahill and a new board appointed last year which had been led by Michael Higgins, son of Irish President Michael D. Higgins – have resigned and are no longer affiliated with the AIHS. Keefe and his colleagues will not examine or comment on any actions taken by prior board members, including a plan to take the proceeds of a building sale and relocate the AIHS to Cooperstown, New York, nearly 200 miles away from Manhattan. “That is not our concern,” he said.

Keefe himself is “at least” a third-generation Irish American, and admits that before his new involvement with the AIHS he had not heard of the organization.

“And that indicates a major problem,” he said. “Everyone should know more about it. There are other institutions in Manhattan that are similar, with just a different ethnic group. It seems to be that there’s a lot more that could be done, and I think everyone feels the same way.”

What does Keefe see as the AIHS mission going forward? “It’s an interesting question. Should it be a museum? A performance venue? There is also a very extensive archival library,” he said of the substantial number of rare Irish historical documents and books the AIHS owns.

Keefe says he has dealt with non-profits in far worse shape than the AIHS and is “optimistic” about its future prospects.

“It’s an easy job in the sense that there is not extreme financial difficulty. The task is where to go from here. It’s not up to me necessarily, but common sense would say that (a future board) would be made up of people who either have Irish extraction or interest in Ireland and the immigrants who came here and did wonderful things in America,” he said.

“As with any non-profit, one of the tasks of a board is to raise money. So it would be nice to get people who fulfill the first criteria and also have a lot of money.”

On Tuesday, the listing for 991 Fifth Avenue still appeared on the website of real estate brokerage Brown Harris Stevens and its top luxury property broker Paula Del Nunzio. She has had the listing since it first came on the market in March of last year, at $52 million.

“It’s definitely not for sale, but it’s hard to get stuff off the internet,” Keefe laughed.

*This column first appeared in the December 21 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.