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Tuesday 30 May 2017

Ulysses S Grant's Irish toast to Queen Victoria

As the Obamas prepare to be awarded the Freedom of Dublin, Liam Collins recalls another US president to be given the honour

WHISKEY EYES: US civil war general Ulysses S Grant in 1864
WHISKEY EYES: US civil war general Ulysses S Grant in 1864
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Knaves, noble men, the long forgotten and some who did the city some service have been awarded the Freedom of Dublin City since its inception in 1876.

Charles Stewart Parnell, Hugh Lane, George Bernard Shaw, John McCormack, John F Kennedy, Pope John Paul II, U2, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bob Geldof and Gay Byrne feature on the list. As to the 'free women' of the city, Michelle Obama becomes only the sixth woman to be granted the honour of grazing her sheep in St Stephen's Green and while Bill Clinton got the honour in 1995, his wife Hillary did not.

Then there are the oddities and the forgotten, like the 1st Marquess of Ripon (in 1888); Ehrenfried Gunther Freiherr von Hunefeld (in 1928), owner of the Bremen, the first aircraft to fly the Atlantic east to west (from Baldonnell in Dublin to Canada); and notable civil servants such as Emanuel Spencer Harty (in 1907), the city engineer who presided over the building of the tap-water system that is largely in use today.

Isaac Butt, a Protestant barrister from Donegal, was the first recipient of the Freedom of Dublin following the passage of the Municipal Privileges Ireland Act in the House of Commons in 1876. The British PM William Ewart Gladstone became the second and the third was Ulysses S Grant, described by Shelby Foote, author of the definitive history of the US Civil War, as "a soft-spoken, rather seedy" figure "with whiskey lines around his eyes".

By the time he arrived in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) aboard the Wild Irishman on January 3, 1879, he was a celebrity, lionised in the capitals of Europe despite the fact that his two terms as US president had been characterised by corruption and the "plunder and repression" of the Confederacy he vanquished.

Accompanied by his wife Julia, the daughter of a Missouri slave owner, he was met at Westland Row (Pearse) Station by Lord Mayor of Dublin Sir John Barrington and treated to breakfast in the Shelbourne Hotel.

At 10.30am he was escorted in an open carriage to the Royal Irish Academy, on to the Bank of Ireland in College Green and Trinity College before the party arrived at the council chamber in City Hall.

After addresses by the Lord Mayor, and MP for Limerick Isaac Butt, Grant rose and said: "Since my arrival on this side of the Atlantic I have the pleasure of being made a citizen of quite a number of towns and cities, but none have given me more pleasure then being made a citizen of the principal city in Ireland. 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 of Ireland. I have had the honour and pleasure of representing more Irishmen and their descendants when in office, than the Queen of England does. Not being in possession of the eloquence of your Lord Mayor, I shall say no more than to simply thank you again."

He sat down, much to the consternation of his audience, who had settled themselves for the long and often tedious speeches expected on such occasions.

Grant had lunch at the Viceregal Lodge with the Duke of Marlborough, father of Winston Churchill (who lived next door). That evening the Lord Mayor hosted a dinner in the Oak Room of the Mansion House in his honour at which toasts were enthusiastically made to Queen Victoria and other luminaries.

Perhaps well-fortified, Grant joked that, as an Irish citizen: "I may be a candidate and a troublesome candidate for some of your high offices. I rather like the Irish people and I don't know but I may have a high representative place among you... I am, as it were, bidding for your votes this evening... if I ever come back to settle, you may make me a member of parliament."

He then spoke of the financial hardship endured in the United States during the civil war - and the boom it had brought to European economies, which had benefitted from $100m a year spent during the conflict.

"Europe got every dollar of that" he said. "It made up your real and apparent prosperity, while we were getting very poor."

But, he said, in the intervening years America "turned the corner" and was now selling more than it had to buy.

"American prosperity meant European prosperity - I don't speak of English or Irish prosperity, but European prosperity."

He finished by saying: "This is the longest speech I have very made - it is because I have become an Irish citizen" and he referred to the Blarney Stone, which he had not visited.

Unlike other US presidents who followed in his footsteps he did not visit his ancestral home in Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, during his Irish tour.

He left Ireland from Queenstown (Cobh) after visiting Cork - where he was not made particularly welcome.

Grant, in another aspect that is relevant today, opposed religious education and disagreed with the Catholic Church on the issue, which led to members of Cork City Council denouncing him. Neither did the fawning toasts to royals at the ceremonial dinners in Dublin go down well in the southern capital.

In the intervening years what was once the preserve of international statesman has been opened to celebrities and sportsmen like Jack Charlton, Kevin Heffernan and Brian O'Driscoll. It took almost 50 years before the honour was conferred on Dubliner Ronnie Delany, who won gold in the 1956 Olympics.

Sunday Independent

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