By Sophie Colgan
I remember the first time I marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue. It was a cold March 17th in 2014. There had been a big snow storm a couple of days before but the parade route was cleared. Large piles of snow neatly lined our marching route and I got the sense that nothing could have stopped this community from marching, from displaying their pride and celebrating the generations of Irish and Irish Americans who made this parade possible.
Full of nerves and anticipation I took my place in line. To my left and right were Irish Americans beaming with pride. Being "just off the boat" meant I felt unsure about how my journey might unfold in this awe-inspiring city. I had been asking myself “where do I fit in?” and couldn’t help but feel vulnerable and homesick as I tried to find my way here.
And then the marching bands started. Traditional Irish songs filled the air and that familiar thunder of drums vibrated through my soul. The sweet sound of flutes and tin whistles filled my ears, and for the first time ever, I felt like this city, this country, might just be a home.
As the parade turned on to Fifth avenue we were greeted by a sea of green and gold, thousands of people cheering and celebrating us, celebrating the generations before us, and future generations to come. I stood up straight, put my shoulders back and pretty soon, I found my stride.
The parade stopped for a moment outside St Patrick’s Cathedral. I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer of thanks and allowed it all to sink in. As we neared the end of the parade route on the Upper East Side where the crowds would disperse, I paused as I saw it for the first time: a building so majestic I thought I might have been imagining the flags I saw mounted outside. The Irish Tricolor and the the Star-Spangled Banner waved simultaneously from the balcony of the finest Manhattan townhouse I had ever laid eyes on. Above the beautiful green doors a plaque read “The American Irish Historical Society” and the address “991 Fifth Avenue."
I immediately felt connected to this magnificent building. Surrounded by big towering apartments and directly opposite the colossal Metropolitan Museum of Art, and though five stories high itself, it looked small in comparison. Its character made it even more endearing to me. The building exuded the story of Irish America; how we overcame adversity, fought for our rights in this country and brought our literature and culture with us around the world. Was this place a headquarters for Irish America I wondered, it certainly looked to be a true symbol of our story.
Less than six months later the stars aligned and I found myself working in that beautiful mansion, at the American Irish Historical Society. It was a labor of love as they say. For four years I was immersed in everything the AIHS stands for. I got to access the library and archive of over 10,000 volumes of Irish American literature. I got to see the gems that were tucked away in this gilded-age mansion. This home of literature and art was now my workplace. I couldn’t believe my luck. Every day I walked past a mounted original copy of “Poblacht na hEireann” the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Every day I nodded to the bust of Daniel O’Connell and every day I got to gaze at the tricolor that was raised over the GPO in 1916. The hairs would stand up on my neck.
Here I would learn the history of the Irish in America, and here I would work to ensure that the story would continue to be told. The slogan of the AIHS is “That the world may know” and that meant, and still means, something profound to me. I had the pleasure of coordinating the events at AIHS which, for many years, had the best of Irish America through its doors. Presidents of Ireland and America, world renowned artists and musicians, educators, historians, writers, creators. You name them and I’ll bet they’ve entered the marbled halls of 991 5th Avenue.
And even since professionally moving on from the AIHS the building holds a piece of my heart. It holds a piece of so many hearts. A symbol, a relic, an heirloom; there are many ways to describe it. But until you walk up Fifth Avenue, raise your head up and see our two flags waving in unison from a building so iconic, you’ll just have to take my word for it.
The news that the Board of AIHS have put 991 Fifth Avenue up for sale weighs heavy on many in our community. I believe the need to embrace and cherish our heritage, culture, and the values of our people is now more important than ever. The story of Irish America is still being told. Future generations need to have the opportunity to experience and understand it just as I have, and as many have done for decades.
The building that is 991 Fifth Avenue is the beating heart of Irish America. Let it never be stilled. To sell it is to demean the work of generations in this country, as well as deprive future generations of their hard-won heritage. Please join me in signing a petition to stop the selling of the finest Irish Building in America, a vital place for past, present, and future generations. Go Raibh Maith Agat. Thank you.
Sign on at www.change.org/991FifthAve