Neeson, the County Antrim-born Oscar nominee and long-time champion of Irish arts in his home state of New York, joined a number of prominent Irish Americans who set a letter on Monday to New York State Attorney General’s Letitia James which said that the sale of the society “must be reconsidered.” Because the society is a non-profit, the sale of its building would have to be approved by attorney general’s Charities Bureau.
“We believe that the society's stated mission – ‘That the world may know’-- is intimately connected to its venerable presence on the most prestigious avenue in the world's greatest city,” the letter continued.
“We believe that severing the society from its time-honored location, which for over eight decades has hosted leading thinkers, writers and artists from Ireland and Irish America is a tragic mistake that once made can never be reversed.
“We believe that, like St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the St. Patrick’s Day parade, this architectural jewel is a living monument to the struggle and success of our immigrant ancestors.
“We believe that the graceful elegance of 991 Fifth provides an unduplicatable environment for exploring and celebrating Irish and Irish American culture.
“We honor the efforts of all who've worked over the years to preserve and enhance the society's prestige, and believe those efforts will be undermined rather than advanced by abandoning 991 Fifth.”
The letter continued, “In hope of preserving this unique part of our heritage for the generations to come, revitalizing its mission, and opening its doors to new audiences, we respectfully ask that you use the authority invested in your good offices to provide relief to our community by committing to: disallowing the sale of 991 Fifth Avenue; ensuring that the society's valuable collections of books, artifacts and manuscripts be accounted for and preserved; overseeing proper governance of the American Irish Historical Society.”
In addition to Neeson, other prominent signatories include Pulitzer Prize winning writer Paul Muldoon and his wife, the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz; Pulitzer Prize winning novelist William Kennedy; novelist Alice McDermott; writers Colm Toibin, Colin Broderick, Peter Quinn, Colum McCann and Malachy McCourt; labor leader and 2018 society honoree Terence O’Sullivan; Ciaran O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore, founders of the Irish Repertory Theatre; Ancient Order of Hibernians National President Daniel O’Connell; attorney and 2019 New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade grand marshal Brian O’Dwyer; and Joan Henchy, chairperson of the Gaelic Athletic Association. The letter includes 44 signatures in total.
Last month, the society’s board of directors announced that its long-time Fifth Avenue home, on 80th Street across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, would be offered for sale for $52 million. There has been considerable anger across the Irish American community over the move given the society’s prominence and the thousands of rare Irish books and documents its houses.
The Irish government has also weighed in on the sale, with Foreign Minister Simon Coveney saying earlier this month, "I am concerned and disappointed about the proposed sale. I would urge the board of the AIHS to reconsider this decision.
"While the society is more than its premises, the building on Fifth Avenue is an iconic emblem of Ireland in New York and a vital part of the infrastructure that underpins U.S.-Ireland relations."