Oireachtas committee urges American Irish Society to stop building sale

Charlie Flanagan says society building on Fifth Avenue is source of diaspora pride

The Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee has written to the board of the American Irish Historical Society urging it to reverse its decision to sell its landmark headquarters in Manhattan.

In a letter to Maureen Bateman, chair of the society, committee chair Charlie Flanagan said that the committee "respectfully request the board of the society to review its decision and do all without your combined power to ensure that every path is pursued to retain this iconic and historic building."

He noted that the committee has already written to Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney "to request that every possible assistance is given in the operation and performance of the society, particularly in these difficult times."

“The honour and pride felt by Irish people and diaspora from all around the word, when they pass by the society’s headquarters on Fifth Avenue, cannot be underestimated,” he wrote, noting that a number of committee members, including himself as a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, had visited the building.

The Irish-American society, which has been located at its current headquarters across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1940, has put the building on the market for $52 million (€42.5 million). It is understood that it has run into financial difficulty in recent years, a situation exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A GoFundMe campaign was launched last year as income suffered. There have also been internal conflicts within the board, culminating with the ousting of James Sheehy Normile as the president and board member.

The Irish Government, which has given almost $1 million to the Society in recent years through the Emigrant Support Fund, opposes the move, and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has called for the decision to be reversed.

Earlier this month a group of high-profile Irish artists and Irish-American figures, including actor Liam Neeson and authors Colm Tóibín and Colum McCann, wrote to the attorney general of New York, calling on the proposed sale to be stopped.

The Society has been in continuous operation since 1897 and bought its current Beaux-Arts building in 1940. Former members of the Society include President Theodore Roosevelt and renowned tenor John McCormack. Most recently, the building's interior featured in the hit HBO series Succession.

In its listing for the building, New York real-estate agent Brown Harris Stevens said that the property is “largely intact” more than 100 years after its construction.

“Buying a house located directly on Fifth Avenue is like acquiring the Holy Grail because such a limited number remain,” it states. “Simply put, this opportunity to acquire a building of this calibre directly on Fifth Avenue is one that may never occur again.”

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent