This year marks the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the American Irish Historical Society. In a time of ethnic and national redefinition, the AHIS’s foundational mission - “That the World May Know” the enduring contributions and achievements of the Irish in the United States- is more vital and important than ever.
Unfortunately, just at this crucial moment, the AIHS faces an existential crisis brought on by inept and visionless leadership.
Founded in 1897, headquartered in New York State since 1904 and in the stately building at 991 Fifth Avenue since 1939, the AIHS has effectively ceased functioning in any real sense.
Mail is being returned. No events are being held or scheduled. There’s no social media presence or outreach. The darkened building is draped in a dreary silence.
During my tenure as Chairman of the Executive Council, I worked with President-General Jim Normile and Events and Marketing Coordinator Sophie Colgan to bring about long-needed internal reforms.
After uncovering questionable financial practices and confronting concerns over the integrity of the collection owned by the Society, we sought fiscal transparency and accountability. We were met at every turn with reaction, resistance, and ultimate removal from our leadership positions.
For years, there’s been a revolving door in AIHS leadership positions. Those who raised uncomfortable questions were ignored or shunted aside while at the same time philanthropic revenue streams dried up as generous donors within our community refused to continue subsidizing the status quo.
Jim, Sophie and I decided that enough was enough and we would not quietly walk away while deeply troubling issues of governance, fiscal accountability, and the integrity of the collection went unresolved.
We brought our concerns to the Charities Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office, and subsequently formed a committee of signatories for two open letters to Attorney General, Letitia James, which represented leaders from the breadth and scope of our community including academics, creative artists, public officials, labor leaders, AOH and GAA national and international leadership, legal experts, and community organizations.
Despite the challenges raised by the pandemic and the sudden, ill-advised attempt by the rump board to sell the iconic Fifth Avenue headquarters, we trust the NYS Attorney General’s Office has been working diligently to investigate the issues we raised. Expectations are that we will be moving towards a resolution of those issues as the process unfolds.
We must all pay close attention to any developments along those lines. What is certain is that the questions originally posed still require answers, that the status quo cannot be maintained, and that the Society requires immediate reform and restructuring.
It is clear that when such a renaissance is accomplished, the great generosity of our community will again sustain a renewed commitment to the founding principles of the Society.
Housed in its essential home at 991 Fifth Avenue, which for so long has embodied a once shunned people’s triumphs in this country, the AIHS will continue to serve as a beacon to the generations and other groups who follow us.
In this, the one hundred and twenty-fifth year of the AIHS, we face unique and substantial challenges that cannot be met by entrenched, self-interested, proprietary elitists oblivious to any interests but their own. We require a board that is responsive to our entire community and representative of our amazing range of artists, academics, public servants, and professional, business and labor leaders.
We have been gratified by the support of the Irish here in America, in Ireland, and throughout the diaspora. Tens of thousands from across our community and beyond have joined our effort to stop the sale of the building and demand accountability.
Happy New Year. Here’s to the next hundred and twenty-five years led by a reformed, rejuvenated, and representative American Irish Historical Society, one that is fulfilling the mission upon which it was founded.
Brian McCabe is a retired NYPD Detective, former chairman of the AIHS Executive Council, and is an Irish Echo columnist.