Family Loosens Grip on New York Irish Group and Its Gilded Age Mansion
The board of directors for the troubled American Irish Historical Society has resigned and an interim board has taken over, under a plan by the New York Attorney General’s office to preserve the nonprofit organization and save the Gilded Age townhouse on Fifth Avenue that has been its headquarters for more than 80 years.
The announcement on Monday signaled the end to one Irish-American family’s half-century control of the society, which ultimately led to managerial dysfunction and charges that the patriarch, Dr. Kevin M. Cahill, had turned it into his private club. Dr. Cahill, 86, a physician and political adviser, died in September.
After a protracted immersion into the society’s books and practices, the attorney general’s Charities Bureau secured the resignation of the Cahill-controlled board, which had been seeking to sell the society’s $44 million mansion to settle its debts and relocate to Cooperstown, N.Y., known as the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but not as a center of American Irish culture.
According to the attorney general, Letitia James, an interim board and executive director will work with “members of the American Irish community” to revitalize the society and select a permanent board during a six-month transition.
As part of the plan, the society’s mansion, at 991 Fifth Ave., is no longer for sale. In addition, the Irish government has allocated as much as $300,000 to cover the costs of utilities and other services during the transition.
“The intention is to stay right where we are,” said John Keefe, the interim executive director, in a telephone interview from the mansion, lately the scene of little activity. His voice echoed as he spoke.
The American Irish Historical Society was founded in 1897 to keep the Irish and Irish-American contributions secure in memory. By 1940, the society had enough money to buy a five-story townhouse on Fifth Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As the years passed, the society settled into relative irrelevance, its many books and artifacts infrequently read or seen. Then, in the mid-1970s, Dr. Cahill, a tropical-disease expert celebrated for his humanitarian work, became its president general.
He revitalized the society in part by holding annual galas at which gold medals were awarded to the esteemed and deep-pocketed. And every March, standing on the townhouse balcony in morning coat and surrounded by select guests, he seemed almost to preside over the St. Patrick’s Day parade as it moved up Fifth Avenue.
Along the way, Cahill family members and loyalists joined the board, and one of the doctor’s sons, Christopher, became its well-compensated executive director.
When Dr. Cahill decided to step down a decade ago, a series of prominent Irish Americans succeeded him, only to discover what they later described as an underachieving organization that didn’t do much beyond holding an annual gala and providing a Cahill scion with employment. Once they raised their concerns, they said, they were pushed out.
In 2019, Brian McCabe, the society’s chairman and a former New York City homicide detective sergeant, and James Normile, its president, pushed for an immediate reorganization. This would include mandatory counseling and a reduced role for Christopher Cahill, who had recently threatened a well-known Irish director at an event in the mansion.
Instead, Mr. Normile and Mr. McCabe joined the growing list of reform-minded officials who were ousted by the Cahill-controlled board. Only this time, they fought back.
Mr. McCabe alerted the attorney general’s office to what he said were financial irregularities, as well as his concerns about the integrity of the society’s collection, which includes extensive documentation of the role of Irish Americans in Ireland’s fight for independence from England.
In March 2021, Mr. McCabe and the society’s just-fired marketing coordinator, Sophie Colgan, started an online petition opposing the sale of the society’s mansion. More than 40,000 people signed on.
The attorney general’s office, which is responsible for reviewing the sale of any property owned by a charity, took note and began to look into the organization’s operations.
With the society’s mansion effectively closed, the dwindling Cahill board pressed ahead with its plans to sell the building and move out of the city.
Now, with the announcement by the attorney general, there will be no move to Cooperstown. There will also be a full cataloging of the society’s collection, since none has been found (although a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office noted that it had not found evidence of stolen items).
The announcement drew sighs of relief from many of the interested parties. Mr. McCabe expressed satisfaction that the yearslong fight for reform that he and others had waged had succeeded, and the Irish consulate in New York said in a statement that Ireland looked forward to “building a positive and constructive relationship” with the reformed society.
A telephone call seeking comment from the spokeswoman for the old board was redirected to Mr. Keefe, the interim executive director and a seasoned expert in nonprofit rehabilitation.
Speaking from inside the society’s mansion, Mr. Keefe said that he was excited about the society’s potential, because so much more “can be done with this organization than has been done in the recent past.”
As he talked, he said he was hunting around for the thermostat. “It’s a little bit cold in here,” he said.