On a storied stretch of Fifth Avenue, a symbol of Irish America reels

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On a storied stretch of Fifth Avenue, a symbol of Irish America reels
The third floor of the American Irish Historical Society’s mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on Feb. 11, 2011. The building, long a symbol of the ascent of immigrants in the U.S., is now on sale for $52 million, but many are citing mismanagement and asking the attorney general to intervene. Michael Falco/The New York Times.

by Dan Barry

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- An exquisite Fifth Avenue townhouse of Gilded Age pedigree is on the market for $52 million. It features five stories, a curved terrace and a history that reads like a tragedy of manners, filled with grandeur and pride, pettiness and decay.

Think Edith Wharton; better yet, think James Joyce.

As home to the American Irish Historical Society, the mansion has long symbolized the immigrant ascent of Irish America. The Irish tricolor and the American stars and stripes flying from its bowed facade staked claim on rarefied pavement, directly across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But for nearly a half-century, the building and society have been the fief of an eminent physician named Dr. Kevin M. Cahill, his family and his friends. Those who ventured to reform its nepotistic ways have historically been shown the ornate door.

Now the sudden plan to sell the mansion has exposed the profound problems beneath its mansard roof — including a very public and nearly violent confrontation provoked by its executive director, Cahill’s son — and elevated what might be dismissed as an internal squabble to international embarrassment.

“The building on Fifth Avenue is something that stands for all of us,” said Brian McCabe, a former New York City homicide detective and one in a long line of ousted society leaders. “This is about a very small group controlling what is held in trust for the Irish in America and around the world.”

The Irish government, which has given nearly $1 million to the society since 2008, has publicly decried the proposed sale, while dozens of prominent artists and business leaders have joined nearly 30,000 others in petitioning the state attorney general to step in.

Kevin Cahill, 84, did not respond to requests for comment, but a society board member and longtime friend of the doctor, Guy L. Smith IV, dismissed the notion of a Cahill-controlled club. He said the sale would allow the society to preserve its extensive library in some undetermined location, and he played down the significance of the mansion the society has called home for 80 years.

“The building is not historically related to the Irish experience,” he said. “It’s just a nice building on Fifth Avenue.”

The mansion at 991 Fifth Ave. is a confection of its era. Built in 1901 for the widow of a wealthy merchant, it eventually passed hands to a steel magnate who had given New York society the vapors by leaving his wife for a musical-comedy actress. After she left him in turn, he lived alone until his death, upstairs, in 1934.

Several years later, the Irish moved in.

The American Irish Historical Society had been founded in 1897 to ensure that the Irish contribution to the American experience was duly recognized. It held large gatherings and published a journal that occasionally leaned into grandiose boasts.

The purchase of the Fifth Avenue building, noteworthy enough for Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to speak at its dedication in 1940, provided suitable space for its books and centuries-old artifacts, including a first printing of the Bible in the Irish language, from 1685.

As the years passed, the foundational fervor waned; the society became an afterthought. The scholar and politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan once described its underused mansion as a “great tomb.”

Then, in the mid-1970s, a physician stepped up to tend to the patient: Cahill, a tropical disease specialist known for his humanitarian work around the world.

Cahill’s resume includes treating Pope John Paul II after he was shot in 1981; leading a groundbreaking AIDS symposium in 1983 that countered the prevailing homophobic indifference; and serving as a special adviser to his friend Hugh Carey, New York’s governor from 1975 to 1982. To his admirers, the doctor was a health care visionary; to his critics, the embodiment of imperious self-regard.

With Cahill as president-general, the society’s profile grew. It held an annual gala at which gold medals were awarded to the likes of President Ronald Reagan, financier Wilbur Ross Jr. and Cahill himself. And every March, the doctor donned a morning coat and joined a select group of guests in watching the St. Patrick’s Day parade from the mansion’s terrace — until the city shortened the route a decade ago.

The society became a Cahill bastion. The doctor’s son Christopher, now 55, was its well-paid executive director, while relatives — including two other sons — and loyalists peppered the board.

Around 2012, Cahill asked Thomas Dowling, a partner at Goldman Sachs, to serve as president. Dowling’s parents were neighbors and friends of the Cahills when he grew up on Long Island, and he had made substantial donations to the society, including $250,000 for a multimillion-dollar restoration of the mansion that had a $3 million overrun.

Despite the “great honor,” Dowling said, he soon realized that the society was managerially dysfunctional, with limited public purpose or financial transparency. The entire enterprise depended on the success of one event: its annual gala.

“After seeing the shenanigans firsthand,” Dowling said, he and the chair presented a restructuring plan to Cahill. It called for hiring a business manager and reassigning the executive director — the doctor’s son Christopher.

“He turned red, got visibly annoyed and said, ‘We’re not going to run it your way; we’re going to run it my way,’” Dowling recalled.

Dowling resigned, as did the chair. A Groundhog Day pattern was emerging.

Before long, another board member well established in the business world — Michael Dowling, president and chief executive of Northwell Health, the state’s largest health care provider — was advocating similar reforms. So was an independent contractor, Harry C. Barrett, a former president of New York Medical College.

To no avail. Dowling, no relation to Thomas Dowling, stepped down in disappointment. And Barrett was abruptly fired, after which he expressed baffled sorrow that his efforts to address the “old ways” were “so utterly defeated.”

Smith, the society representative, did not deny that a succession of experienced administrators had raised alarms. But he said they had left for failing to raise enough money for the annual dinner — a charge that others vehemently dispute.

“It just didn’t work,” Smith said. “The society moved on.”

In 2016, the insular society agreed to open the mansion for an Irish Repertory Theater production of “The Dead, 1904.” The play, adapted from the Joyce short story by Irish poet Paul Muldoon and his wife, author Jean Hanff Korelitz, placed the audience amid a post-Christmas gathering in Edwardian-era Dublin.

The well-received seven-week production generated $79,000 for the society, showed off its building to celebrities and the well heeled, and fulfilled the goal of promoting Irish culture. Staged again in 2017 and 2018, the play was on the cusp of becoming a holiday tradition.

But in January 2019, during an after-party celebrating the season’s final performance, there was an incident. An agitated Christopher Cahill rushed down the mansion’s balustraded stairwell and made a beeline for Ciaran O’Reilly, the play’s director and co-founder of the Irish Rep.

“He lunged towards me to hit me,” O’Reilly said.

“He was yelling, ‘I’m going to kill you, Ciaran!’” recalled Kathleen Begala, the theater company’s chair. When she stepped in front of him, she said, Cahill threatened her as well, after which he was restrained and escorted to the lobby.

Cahill did not answer requests for comment. Smith said the executive director’s behavior had been prompted by his interpretation — a misinterpretation, it turned out — of how long the Irish Rep could linger after the last performance.

“The response from Chris was overly exuberant,” he said.

By this point, the society’s new president, a lawyer named James Normile, and its new chair, McCabe, the former detective, had already resurrected the familiar call for urgent reorganization. The society, McCabe later wrote, “was in disarray,” with a $3 million loan owed to one board member.

Their plan called for hiring a director of business and development. Christopher Cahill would be required to seek counseling and assume the reduced role of director of cultural and archival affairs — a plan he agreed to in a letter.

The Irish government, which had given the society $934,000 over the previous decade, also signed on to what it viewed as a much-needed restructuring plan. It agreed to provide $50,000 for the new business position.

But the plan for reform blew up. Again.

First, an emissary of the Cahill-controlled board notified Normile that he had been removed as president. (“I almost threw him out of my office,” he said.) After that, McCabe — whom the society had recently applauded for making the 2018 gala a success — was ousted as chair. “A series of governance lapses by Mr. Normile and Mr. McCabe,” Smith explained.

Also terminated: the new business director, David O’Sullivan, who had presented a plan for revenue streams that included opening the building to exhibitions and special events like weddings.

“This never appealed to the Cahills,” he said. “They always wanted to keep the doors locked.”

Smith said O’Sullivan had been fired because he had “tanked” the upcoming gala by sharing internal documents that tipped off the would-be honoree to the society’s struggles, after which the businessman declined the honor. O’Sullivan scoffed at this, saying the strife was already public knowledge.

Taken aback by the turmoil, the Irish government halted payment for the new position and exercised its contractual right to audit the society’s books. Smith said the audit merely “had some suggestions of governance”; the Irish consulate in New York, though, said the review had identified “significant issues.”

Meanwhile, McCabe and Normile asked the state attorney general’s charity bureau, which oversees nonprofit organizations, to intervene. (McCabe said this past week that he was in contact with the bureau and that its inquiry remained open. A spokesperson for the attorney general declined to say whether the office was investigating the society.)

The fallout continued. The society, now fully returned to Cahill control, notified the Irish Rep that the mansion would not be available for a fourth season of “The Dead, 1904” — even though O’Sullivan had negotiated a deal that would have increased revenue and exposure for the society.

When asked why the society killed the event, Smith responded that “it was determined that it would not work for the society.”

In late January, after a year of pandemic-related inactivity, the society put its rare jewel of a mansion on the market for $52 million. “One for the ages,” trumpeted the real estate firm handling the sale. Akin to “acquiring the Holy Grail.”

The news horrified the Irish American community, prompting many to call on the attorney general to halt the sale. Under state law, the sale of property by a nonprofit organization is contingent on the approval of the attorney general or the State Supreme Court.

The Irish parliament’s foreign affairs committee and foreign affairs minister, Simon Coveney, urged the society to reconsider. The building, Coveney said, is “an iconic emblem of Ireland in New York.”

The society responded to the parliament this past week with a suggestion — that Ireland buy the building.

Meanwhile, various Irish Americans of means are standing in the wings to salvage the building and, by extension, the society.

“There is enthusiasm to fix it,” Thomas Dowling said. “But there will be hesitation until the society has sound leadership and sound governance.”

For now, the repository of a culture at 991 Fifth Ave. remains closed. And the Irish and American flags that once bracketed its Gilded Age entryway have been removed.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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