President Ulysses S. Grant’s Irish tour, 1879

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2011), News, Volume 19

Contemporary cartoons of President Grant in the ‘national costumes’ of the various countries he visited, including Ireland.

Contemporary cartoons of President Grant in the ‘national costumes’ of the various countries he visited, including Ireland.

On 23 May 1877 the US State Department informed all its consular officials that former president Ulysses S. Grant had departed Philadelphia on 17 May for Liverpool. Grant, a Civil War hero, had spent two terms (1869–77) in office and presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in US history. After leaving the White House, Grant and his wife Julia set out on perhaps the ‘grandest tour an American couple had ever made’.

Grant arrived in Dublin on Friday 3 January 1879 from Holyhead. Accompanied by New York Herald journalist John Russell Young and General Edward F. Noyes, the US minister to France, among others, the party was met at Westland Row by the lord mayor of Dublin, Sir Jonah Barrington, whose carriage brought them to the Shelbourne Hotel. Later, Grant visited the Mansion House, the Royal Irish Academy, the Bank of Ireland (where he was greatly impressed with the workings of the bank), the Chamber of Commerce, the stock exchange, Trinity College and City Hall, where he received the freedom of the city. In a short speech, Grant noted that he had received similar honours elsewhere but none gave him ‘more pleasure’ because he was ‘by birth a citizen of a country where there are more Irishmen . . . than there are in Ireland’. The Freeman’s Journal’s barbed comment that his ‘tongue was not as effective as his sword’ was mirrored in the Dublin public’s mixed reaction to him. A ‘large crowd’ greeted him at the Mansion House but he was able to spend two days strolling around Dublin and ‘quietly’ in his hotel.

On Monday 6 January he left by train for Derry and, despite cold winds, snow, ice and rain, was welcomed by crowds in Dundalk, Omagh, Strabane and other stops. In the northern city, where ships in the harbour were decorated with flags and streamers, the police were required to hold the crowds in check. Grant and his party made their way with difficulty to Jury’s Hotel and then to the City Hall, where he signed the roll, ‘thus making himself an Ulster Irishman’.

The same effusive welcome was experienced at every station as the party moved on to Belfast on Tuesday 7 January. The city was bedecked with American and British flags. Again crowds thronged the streets, despite the bad weather. An elaborate luncheon was held in the City Hall and on Wednesday he visited several linen warehouses, factories and the Harland and Wolff shipyard.

This fulsome Ulster welcome can be explained by Grant’s Ulster background. His maternal grandfather, John Simpson, had emigrated from Dergnagh, Co. Tyrone, to Pennsylvania in 1760. Close commercial ties, particularly in the linen industry, existed between the Ulster ports and the US. A third context was that several returned Civil War veterans turned out to greet him during the northern trip.

Grant had not intended going to Derry but had expected to travel to Cork. In early January 1879, Cork’s mayor, Patrick Kennedy, informed the Corporation that Lewis Richmond, US consul to Cork, had written to him indicating Grant’s imminent arrival in the city. During the discussion, Alderman Harris stated that a ‘proper reception’ had to be given to him in order to protect the interests of the Irish ‘nation’ in the US. Nevertheless, Alderman Tracey insisted that while it would be ‘ungenerous’ to refuse a reception to Grant, it would be ‘unbecoming for the Catholic constituency of Cork city to entertain such a man’. It was Alderman Barry who clarified the issue: Grant had ‘got up a “no-popery” cry’ in the US. The mayor’s proposal that Richmond’s letter be marked as ‘read’ was accepted.

Grant was a Republican, the party which the heavily Irish-American-dominated Democratic Party regarded as pro-British, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant. But it was his education policy (Grant believed that federal funding should not be used to run religious schools) that upset the Cork politicians, as it had his Democratic opponents and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Grant departed from Kingstown, not Queenstown, on Wednesday 8 January 1879. His visit highlighted religious, political and geographical differences within Ireland but also the empathy that existed between the Irish Catholic community in the US and Ireland. Upon his return to Philadelphia on 16 December, Grant launched a bid for the Republican presidential nomination but his time had passed. HI

Bernadette Whelan is a Senior Lecturer in history at the University of Limerick. Her American government in Ireland, 1790–1913: a history of the US consular service in Ireland has just been published by Manchester University Press.

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