Ulysses S. Grant
The Irish Visit, 1879

Ulysses S. Grant, 18th president of the United States. (Photo Wikimedia Commons)

By Kelly Candaele, Contributor
March / April 1996

Ulysses S. Grant, in his visit to Ireland in 1879, covered much the same territory as President Clinton did on his visit in 1995.

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Ulysses S. Grant was not actually president of the United States when he arrived in Dublin from London on January 3, 1879. His tenure as a two-term Republican president had ended in March of 1877. He was succeeded by Rutherford B. Hayes, another Republican, who lost the popular vote for president but gained enough electoral votes to be given the presidency in the “Great Compromise” of 1877, which withdrew the last Federal troops from the South. In May of that year, exhausted by the rigors of the presidency and politics, Grant embarked upon a two-year journey that would take him around the world, a voyage that he desperately longed for after 16 years of military and government service.

Grant traveled throughout Europe for a year-and-a-half before “coming home,” as he expressed it to his wife, to the land of his great-grandfather John Simpson, who was born in 1738 near Dungannon in County Tyrone. Simpson emigrated to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1763 where he married and had a son, also name John, who moved to Ohio in 1818. The third of John’s children, Hannah, married Jessie Root Grant and gave birth to Ulysses in 1822.

Arriving in Dublin on the morning of January 3, Grant was met by Lord Mayor J. Barrington and taken to the sumptuous Shelbourne Hotel by carriage. Later in the day he toured the city with the mayor and the American Consul in Dublin. Their stops included the Corporation Hall, festooned with Union Jacks and American flags; the Bank of Ireland; the Stock Exchange on Dame Street; Trinity College; and the Royal Irish Academy. After the Trinity College tour he was taken up Sackville Street, described by John Russell Young, a writer who accompanied Grant on the world tour, as “one of the finest avenues in the Kingdom, being very broad and lined on either side by very fine and costly buildings.” At the end of Sackville Street Grant admired the Nelson Column in Rutland Square. (The statue of the English admiral was blown up by the I.R.A. in the early 1970s, offering Irish president Eamon de Valera an opportunity for a rare display of wit when he commented that Nelson had “returned to England by air.”)

Given the Freedom of the City, Grant told the crowd gathered outside City Hall that “I have been made a citizen of quite a number of towns and cities, but nothing has given me more pleasure than to be made a citizen of the principal city of Ireland. I am by birth a citizen of a country where there are more Irishmen, either native-born or the descendants of Irishmen, than there are in all of Ireland.” In a gentle dig at the Queen he delighted the crowd by adding that when in office he “had the honor and pleasure of representing more Irishmen and their descendants than the Queen of England does.”

Dr. Isaac Butt, the Protestant leader of the Home Rule movement, also addressed the crowd. Five months later Butt would die, leaving the leadership of the Home Rule campaign to Charles Stewart Parnell.

That evening a large banquet was held in Grant’s honor at the mayor’s residence, an event he described as “keeping him up until the late (or early) hours.” The following two days he spent walking and touring the city and resting at the Shelbourne. He had been scheduled to travel to Cork City but a number of Catholic members of the Town Council accused Grant of insulting the Irish people by, according to a Mr. Barry, “getting up a `No Popery’ cry there.” A number of other Catholic Council members joined Barry in demanding that no municipal honors or public reception be given to Grant. Alderman Dwyer stated during the debate that “it would be an act of impropriety on the part of the Corporation of Cork to pay any mark of respect personally to General Grant.” Needless to say, Grant changed his plans to travel to Cork, and headed North to what one historian called “his own people in Ulster.”

The historical record is unclear on Grant’s attitude towards Catholics while he was president. In his memoirs, however, Grant admitted to being a member of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party for a brief time in the 1850’s. According to Professor John Y. Simon, editor of the Grant papers at Southern Illinois University, Grant attended a few meetings of the Know-Nothings after losing a job to a “foreigner” in St. Louis County. Grant had also given a famous speech in Des Moines, Iowa, while president, where he stated his support for public schools and education free of sectarianism. Simon suggests that these actions could have been interpreted as being anti-Catholic.

But Grant also showed toleration of Fenian activities in the United States. In 1871 when five Irish revolutionary prisoners, recently released from British jails, steamed into New York harbor, there was a message of welcome from the Grant administration. And as Thomas Brown, historian of Irish-American nationalism points out, Grant tolerated Fenian activity, fearing Irish political strength and used their bellicosity as a bargaining chip with the British.

Nevertheless, after being spurned by the Cork town council, he traveled to the city he called Londonderry, arriving there on January 6 after brief stops in Dundalk, Omagh, and Strabane, where he greeted people who gathered at the train stations to welcome him. He was met by Mayor John Browne, and taken to the Imperial Hotel and then to the town hall for a speech on the Ulster-American connection.

Grant told the large gathering (the Belfast Newsletter covered his arrival in Derry and suggested that “the whole town and neighborhood” had come out to see him) that his trip would have been incomplete without seeing the ancient and illustrious city of Londonderry, “whose history is so well-known throughout America.” He spoke of the kindly feeling existing between the two countries and then spoke of his own Ulster connection without revealing precisely what that connection was. “We all have relations on this side of the water, although some of us would unluckily enough have to go back five or six generations to find them.” Professor Simon suggests that Grant was probably more interested in his paternal lineage, as most men were during that time.

He then engaged in some post-presidential politicking, inviting everyone to America and offering them citizenship, just “not as rapidly as you have made me a citizen here today. If there is home for many more millions yet, we hope to see more of the people of Derry and Ireland. When you become more crowded and want more room, we hope you will go there and establish your shirt and linen factories.”

While in Derry Grant toured the historic city walls, coming across another statue, this one of the fiery Protestant Reverend George Walker, Governor of Londonderry, who defended the city against the troops of James II in 1689. Almost 300 years later the replica of Walker, which looked down upon the Catholic Bogside, would meet the same fate as the likeness of Nelson. Grant was also shown the cannon called “Roaring Meg,” which was used during the siege of Derry and can be found on the ancient walls today.

The following day Grant traveled by train to Belfast by way of Coleraine and Ballymena. In Coleraine he was met by commissioners of the borough, who spoke publicly for the first time of the protracted economic depression that the area was experiencing and stated their hopes that improved economic conditions in the United States would benefit Ireland. And, to Grant’s great joy, he was also met by a number of men who had served under him in the Civil War. He was their general, a man who had stated a simple but successful philosophy for conducting war. “The art of war is simple enough,” Grant said. “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”

At 2:30 in afternoon Grant’s train pulled into Northern Countries’ Railway Station in Belfast to another great welcome from the mayor, John Browne. The large linen mills near the train depot had stopped work and workers stood out in the rain in the thousands. All the public buildings were draped in English and American colors. At a late luncheon the American ambassador to France, who accompanied Grant on the Ireland trip, reminded the audience that as president, Grant had appointed two Belfast men, A.T. Stewart and George Stuart, to the cabinet posts of secretary of the treasury and secretary of the navy. Stewart had owned the biggest department store in the world and was considered a political fixer for Grant in New York.

After lunch Grant again met with old soldiers who had served under him, and one soldier who had fought with the Rebels and had been captured by Grant at the battle of Paducah, and toured the White Star shipyards, where the famous steamers that would transport so many of Ireland’s people to America were built. Grant also took time to meet with a Mr. Cronin, the editor of the Catholic Union, and Bishop Ryan of Buffalo, New York. That evening he made his final speech in Ireland and he again spoke of the Ulster connection and the sons and daughters of Belfast who had helped build America. He closed his talk by stating that he could not possibly go around the world without seeing the dear old Emerald Isle.

The next day he left for Dublin. At another train stop in Drogheda a young girl asked Grant to give her love to her aunt in America. He promised to do so. A few days later in Paris, Grant wrote his friend George Childs back in the States. He told Childs: “I have just had a delightful run through the North of Ireland. I saw no distress and no poverty.”

It is fairly clear from those revealing comments that Grant saw only what his hosts wanted him to see, a kind of Potemkin village, Irish-style. It must be remembered that 1879 was also the year the Irish National Land League was formed by Michael Davitt, just a year-and-a-half out of a British prison. It was also a year of agrarian outrages and start of the so-called “land war,” one of the greatest mass movements of modern Ireland. And the winter of 1878-79 saw an economic crisis that historian T.W. Moody says: “Threatened the rural population with a disaster comparable to that of the great Famine.”

There are a number of similarities between Grant’s trip to Ireland and President Bill Clinton’s visit in 1995. But while he may not have seen a great deal more of Ireland during his stay in Belfast, Derry, and Dublin from the exact itinerary that Grant had taken 116 years earlier, it is clear that Clinton knew what Grant did not – the social and political turmoil that percolated beneath the surface of a presidential visit.

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What the Papers Said

First hand account from the City Archives of Dublin, January 4, 1879 of the conferring of the Freedom of Dublin on Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States.

One o’clock in the Council Chamber, City Hall, was appointed for the ceremony of making General Grant an honorary freeman of Dublin, and at one o’clock the chamber was as vividly bright as beauty, fashion, celebrity, and scarlet togas could make it. There was our English Chief Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, enjoying his first glimpse of an Irish crowd; there was the genial Home Rule leader Isaac Butt, first of the new-made freemen, regaled with many a congratulation on his returning strength; and there were as many members of Parliament, lawyers, doctors, priests, bankers, and beauties besides, as could conveniently, or even inconveniently, be stowed into the given allowance of cubic feet.

“General Ulysses S. Grant, ex-President of the United States,” shouted from the entrance at the head of the central staircase brought everybody in the house to his or her feet. Amidst a short, sharp, earnest burst of welcome, the hero of the day stalked placidly up the centre of the chamber, with his eyes fixed straight before him, looking neither to right nor to left, until he was seated quietly on the right of the Lord Mayor. While the roll was calling, General Grant sat immovable as a man of marble, never once raising his eyes, and never once wasting a word upon his neighbors. The simple severity of Republicanism and straightforwardness of martial law rolled into one and were visible in every detail of his dress, face and manner.

A somewhat undersized, thickset, dingy-looking man with powerful chest and sinewy limbs, his head alone would mark him out from the mob, a well-preserved gentleman of fifty-six, who might easily pass for a dozen years younger; but that head would be singled out of a million. A massive square-built forehead, rising perpendicularly over a pair of close-set, piercing gray eyes, sheathed under heavy eyebrows; a short, flat nose and mouth with bloodless lips, and teeth fastened by being locked together, all pursed up into the one expression of concentration, stubborn force, and sleepless energy, and all framed in short, dusky, square-clipped whiskers running all round cheeks that must have had their baptism of gunpowder – it required little in physiognomy to make sure that here was the lion-hearted and dogged soldier, who beat down Buckner and Johnston, and Beauregard and Bragg, and over a hundred thousand corpses crashed his way through the lines of Richmond.

Following a speech by the Lord Mayor, General Grant, upon rising, was heartily cheered. He said, “My Lord Mayor, gentlemen of the Town Council of Dublin, and ladies and gentlemen, I feel very proud to be made a citizen of the great city which you represent, and to be a fellow-citizen with those whom I see around me today. Since my arrival on this side of the Atlantic, I have had the pleasure of being made a citizen of quite a number of towns and cities. None have given me more pleasure than being made a citizen of the principal city of Ireland (applause). I am by birth a citizen of a country where there are more Irishmen, either native born or descendants of Irishmen, than you have in all Ireland (cheers). I have had the honor and pleasure, therefore, of of representing more Irishmen and their descendants when in office than the Queen of England does (hear, hear). Not being possessed of the eloquence of your worthy Lord Mayor, I shall say no more than simply to thank you again (cheers).

Mr. Dawson: “Three cheers for America.”

The cheers were heartily given.

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