The First Republican President in Ireland, Part 2 of 3: A Rebuff From Cork

Dublin City Council

Dublin City Hall

Ulysses S. Grant spent five days in Ireland, the 21st country in a 27-country world tour he launched after his two-term presidency. While generating enthusiastic crowds virtually everywhere he traveled, some in Ireland turned their backs.

By Scott Berman
Special to

Next came the day's big event: a formal ceremony at City Hall, where Grant received the Honorary Freedom of the City of Dublin—meaning that he was made an honorary citizen. He was the third recipient, right after British Prime Minister William W. Gladstone. (Generations later, the honor would also go to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton).

That night, at a banquet in his honor at Dublin's Mansion House, Grant responded to a toast with uncharacteristically long remarks. (Full text here) He 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) … I am, as it were, bidding for your votes this evening." He then went on to tell the audience that the American economy—recovering from the throes of a crippling 1870s depression—would help flagging Irish exports to the United States.

Freeman's Journal on U.S. Grant

The Dublin-based Freeman's Journal, established in the 1750s, served as Ireland's oldest nationalist newspaper until it ceased publication in 1924, merging with the Irish Independent. Here is the paper's reporting of Ulysses S. Grant's visit to Dublin's City Hall, where he was to be made an honorary citizen of the city:

"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 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...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 eye brows; a short, flat nose, and a mouth with bloodless lips, and teeth fastened as if 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 skill 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."

—Scott Berman

The next day, Grant caught his breath with a quiet day at the hotel, and also took a leisurely weekend stroll around the city. Cork had been tentatively suggested for the next stop on the Irish trip. But it was not to be.

Diplomats had sent feelers to Cork officials shortly before Grant's arrival in Ireland, suggesting a possible reception during his time in the country. When the proposal came before the Cork Town Council, councilmen passed a resolution to simply stamp the relevant document as "read" and organized nothing for the potential visitor. Several alleged on the council floor that Grant was anti-Catholic.

The Freeman's Journal, Ireland's oldest nationalist newspaper, went further. As president, Grant "had gone out 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 affirmed the separation of church and state, and 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.

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 brief stops, shaking hands through a train window, and, occasionally, receiving welcoming remarks at stations en route."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.

Grant spoke at Coleraine about the close ties between the Irish and Americans. According to one report, he drew an "immense crowd" in Ballymena, where a U.S. flag was flown from the rail station, according to The Coleraine Constitution. At Portadown, he disembarked and greeted a cheering crowd of about 1,000. The Herald's Young mentioned similar crowds at Dundalk, Drogheda, "and other stations." Grant also stopped at Strabane and Omagh.

Candace Scott, Ulysses S. Grant Homepage
The "youthful" Grant in 1879

Northern Irish newspapers compared the visitor's local reception to that dispensed elsewhere in the country, and found the latter wanting. Alluding to the Cork incident, The Coleraine Constitution exemplified the attitude: "The warmth of the reception extended to General Grant in the North more than counterbalances the coldness of the welcome accorded to him in the South."

In Derry, he received a tumultuous reception. "The crowd followed the General's carriage and cheered madly," wrote Young. "The ships in the harbor were decorated with flags and streamers -- in fact, the whole town was in gala dress and out for a holiday." Grant's party had trouble getting through the throngs for the Town Hall ceremony, where Grant received another honorary citizenship. There, Grant "signed the roll, thus making himself an Ulster Irishman."

Later, there was a banquet in his honor at Derry's County Court House. A county official, Harvey H. Bruce, in one of the many reported toasts, noted the ex-president's relative youth, and said that Grant could return one day to Ireland, as well as "become again President of the United States."

In his reply to Bruce's toast, Grant made a pitch for Irish investment in the United States. Building shirt and linen factories, mainstays of Derry's economy, in America would help Irish entrepreneurs avert the payment of controversial U.S. tariffs, he said. He added that there was plenty of room in America for Irish immigrants.

"We will make you all citizens, but not so rapidly as you have made me a citizen here today (laughter and applause). But after a little probation, we will make you all citizens, and give you an equal voice with ourselves in saying who shall make the laws and what laws should be made," Grant said, according to The Freeman's Journal. WGT

Grant's Cork Controversy: 
Must education be 'sacrificed to denominational zeal'?

On the eve of former President U.S. Grant's arrival in Ireland, the Freeman's Journal reprinted a particularly virulent piece from the New York Daily News that speculated that if Grant got a frosty reception in Ireland, the reasons would be the education issue, a perception that the ex-President was pro-England, and a general antagonism in Ireland toward both countries.

In fact, Grant was rebuffed by Cork, whose city fathers refused to invite the famed warrior to the city. Grant called for public school systems that would educate "irrespective of sex, color, birthplace, or religion," says Frank J. Scaturro, author of the book "President Grant Reconsidered." (Buy from ) Grant's position was enshrined in a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution called the Blaine Amendment, put forward by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives James G. Blaine. Unfortunately, some opportunistic state politicians latched onto anti-Catholic hostility and rhetoric in passing similar legislation in a number of states. The battle lines still look topical: one side believed that public funding of parochial schools undermined democracy, while the other believed that public schools undermined religion.

Grant occasionally expressed concern that many new urban immigrants were unfamiliar with American institutions and traditions. Furthermore, he saw such immigrants, along with those many Southerners pushing for maintenance of white political supremacy, as the base of the opposition Democratic Party. He was quoted at least once as using a term—"the foreign element in the North"—that falls uneasily on 21st-century ears, but Grant was not motivated by anti-Catholicism. Instead, he believed that the more publicly educated citizens were, the healthier the democracy. But the bottom line was that many Catholics remained gravely concerned about the Blaine Amendment.

The Times of London gravely weighed in on the news from Cork:

"The fact, we believe, is that General Grant during his Presidency vigorously defended the common school system of the United States against the attempt of the Roman Catholic priests to manipulate it for their own purposes. Not only in Ireland, therefore, must education be sacrificed to denominational zeal, but the advocates and supporters of education pure and simple in any part of the world are, in the opinion of Cork, unfit objects for decent outward respect. ... The fanaticism which can lead some Irishmen to ignore the claims of hospitality for the sake of a quarrel in which they have no concern scarcely fails to show itself in home questions. ..."
—Scott Berman



  • "The Arrival of General Grant," Belfast Telegraph, Jan. 7, 1879. p. 3.
  • "General Grant in Ireland," The Saturday Review (reprinted in The Belfast News-Letter) Jan. 13, 1879, p. 8.
  • "General Grant in the North," The Freeman's Journal Jan. 7, 1879. p. 1
  • "Gen. Grant's Reception in Belfast," Chicago Daily News, Jan. 9, 1879. p. 1.
  • "General Grant's Visit," The Belfast Morning News, January 8, 1879, p. 2.
  • "General Grant's Visit to Ireland," Coleraine Constitution, January 1, 1879, pp. 4, 7.
  • "Grant in Ireland," The Boston Globe, Evening Edition, Jan. 6, 1879.
  • "Grant's Progress," The Boston Globe, Evening Edition, January 10, 1879, p. 3.
  • McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981. p. 471.
  • Scaturro, Frank J., President Grant Reconsidered. University Press of America, 1998.
  • Young, John Russell. Around the World with General Grant. New York: The American News Company, 1879. Also, also edited and introduced by Michael Fellman, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. p. 186.

This page was produced by Joseph E. Gannon, with research assistance from Frank Scaturro and Gerry Regan.

Copyright © 2004 by GAR Media LLC and the author. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions

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