President Bush is in Ireland today meeting with leaders of the European Union. Another Republican president, Ulysses S. Grant, visited the island 125 years ago.
Accompanied by Belfast Mayor John Browne, Ulysses S. Grant visited the city’s enormous Harland & Wolff shipyard in
January 1879, almost two years after the end of his second term as president of the United States. The Boston Globe reported that 2,000 workmen welcomed Grant, gathering around his carriage, with one yelling out “Three cheers for Oliver Cromwell Grant.”
Undoubtedly intended as a compliment in the Protestant-dominated yard, the comparison of Grant to the Puritan general would not endear Grant to Ireland’s Catholics, who were weaned on stories of Cromwell’s reputed slaughter of Irish Catholics in the mid-17th century. The incident underscored the sensibilities that Grant navigated during his five-day journey through Ireland, the first visit by a Republican president to the Emerald Isle.
Grant, 56, was contemplating a run for a third presidential term, and, as presidential aspirants still do, was wooing the Irish-American voting bloc. After whirlwind tours of England — highlighted by enormous welcoming crowds in London, Birmingham, Newcastle and Manchester plus visits with Queen Victoria — he could not ignore Ireland.
The Ohio native faced an uphill task with these voters, many of whom had emigrated to America to escape the ravages of the Great Famine and the indignities of British domination of their homeland. Many Irish in America saw Grant as biased toward Britain, as many today see another Republican president, George W. Bush, tilting toward the United Kingdom in Northern Irish affairs.
While Grant had some negatives as far as Irish-American voters went, in his favor, he had some Irish ancestry, which likely cemented his interest in making the visit. His maternal grandfather, John Simpson, was born in Dergenagh, County Tyrone, and emigrated to America in 1760.
As commander of the Union’s armies, Grant had led tens of thousands of Irish immigrants to ultimate victory, but thousands of Irish had died. That led some newspapers, typically Democratic and popular with Irish-American readers, to refer to him as “Butcher Grant.”
As far as the bulk of the Irish in Ireland were concerned, though, Grant was a most welcome and notable visitor. A notable exception was Cork, but more on that later.
Grant was probably the most famous American in the world at that time. He had embarked on an unprecedented journey for an American statesman. After leaving the White House in March 1877, he traveled from May 1877 to September 1879. Ireland was the 21st country on his itinerary. After a leg of the trip that included Gibraltar, Spain, Portugal, Paris and London, Grant and his small party headed for Ireland before eventually heading for India and the Far East.
Grant landed in Dublin from London on Jan. 3, with a stop in Holyhead, Wales, sailing on the Wild Irishman, a steamer, on the regular mail route.
New York Herald journalist John Russell Young, who traveled throughout Ireland with Grant, depicted the ex-president’s reception as friendly. However, like Grant biographers a century later, Young glossed over the Ireland visit. Indeed, it was not all sweetness and light.
In addition to Young, Grant was accompanied by Adam Badeau, who was U.S. consul-general in London, and former Gen. Edward F. Noyes, American minister to France and a Civil War veteran who had lost a leg in battle. Julia Grant stayed behind in England with the Grants’ daughter, Nellie Sartoris, and her British husband.
Grant started on a tour of Dublin the morning of his arrival, visiting the Royal Irish Academy; the Bank of Ireland in College Green, where he asked a lot of questions about monetary policy; the Stock Exchange; the Chamber of Commerce; and Sackville Street. He stayed at the Shelbourne Hotel.
Next came a formal ceremony at City Hall, where Grant received the Honorary Freedom of the City of Dublin. He was the third recipient, right after British Prime Minister William W. Gladstone. (Generations later, the honor also would go to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton.)
That night, at a banquet in his honor at Dublin’s Mansion House, Grant joked, “I am not quite sure but [the Irish welcome] may cause me to be a candidate for some of your high places,” meaning the mayoralty of Dublin or a seat in Parliament. He then said that the American economy — recovering from a crippling depression — would help flagging Irish exports to the United States.
Cork had been tentatively suggested for the next stop on the Irish trip, but it was not to be. Diplomats had suggested a possible reception during his visit. When the proposal came before the Cork Town Council, councilmen passed a resolution simply to stamp the relevant document as “read” and organized nothing for the potential visitor. Several charged that Grant was anti-Catholic.
The Freeman’s Journal, Ireland’s oldest nationalist newspaper, went further. As president, Grant had “gone out of his way to insult the Irish people,” the newspaper wrote. The ex-president gave Cork a pass.
The back story is that Grant, as president, had supported a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution, titled the Blaine Amendment after its sponsor, James G. Blaine. The measure, put forward in 1875, would have, among other things, prohibited public funding of parochial schools. In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, the president had affirmed the separation of church and state and had called for church property to be taxed.
“Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the state forever separate,” he said.
“On being informed of the action of the Cork town council, General Grant said he was sorry that the people of Cork knew so little of American history,” the Boston Globe reported.
So, instead of Cork, Grant boarded what one newspaper called “a saloon carriage attached to the regular mail” and headed by rail in a circuitous route toward Belfast, with whistle-stops at the train stations in Drogheda, Dundalk, Portadown, Omagh, Strabane, Coleraine, and Ballymena. Large and friendly crowds greeted him.
According to Young, Grant received another honorary citizenship in Derry’s Town Hall, where he “signed the roll, thus making himself an Ulster Irishman.” That evening, there was a banquet in his honor at Derry’s County Court House, where Grant made a pitch for Irish investment in the United States. Building shirt and linen factories in America would help Irish entrepreneurs avert U.S. tariffs, he said. He added that there was plenty of room in America for Irish immigrants.
Staying overnight in Derry, Grant spent the next day looking at the city’s historic walls and the “Roaring Meg” cannon. He and his party then headed for Belfast. En route, workers and other spectators waited in the rain and snow to greet him.
A huge crowd gathered in Coleraine, where Civil War veterans from both sides approached Grant — one said the general’s forces had captured him at Paducah, Ky.; the other asked for money. Grant’s reply was not noted.
The visitor arrived in Belfast the next day. Local businesses decorated their buildings in honor of the visit, according to the Belfast Telegraph. Back in the United States, Associated Press noted that orange flags were among the decorations.
In addition to Harland & Wolff in Belfast, Grant visited mills, linen and stationary factories and a jewelry exhibit during the short stay.
The Grant party headed back to Dublin for the mail ship out. More crowds greeted him at Portadown, Dundalk and Drogheda. At one point, Young wrote, a small girl asked Grant to “give her love to her aunt in America.” eliciting “considerable merriment” from the crowd.
Grant sailed Jan. 8, en route to India via London, Paris and Marseilles. He arrived back in the United States from Japan in September 1879 and came close to a third presidential nomination in June 1880.
There have been subsequent reminders of the ex-president in Ireland. In 1907, a steamship later christened the President Grant was built at the Belfast shipyard he had visited; and the Grant ancestral homestead in Dungannon, in County Tyrone’s Clogher Valley, was restored recently, offering tourists a glimpse of Grant’s Irish ties.
In Dublin’s City Hall on his first day in Ireland, Grant said: “I am by birth a citizen of a country where there are more Irishmen, either native born or the descendants of Irishmen, than you have in all Ireland.
“I have had the honor and pleasure, therefore, of representing more Irishmen and their descendants when in office than the Queen of England does.”
The ever-feisty Freeman’s Journal sniffed about Grant’s remarks that night, “His tongue was not as effective as his sword.” There’s no evidence that Grant ever saw the comment, but for the record, he never returned to Ireland.
To read more about U.S. Grant and the Irish, visit www.TheWildGeese.com.