The former American President received a rapturous reception in Ireland as part of a world tour. Cathal Coyle explores his routes and visits an ancestral home
Bill Clinton was a famous visitor to Ireland during and after his time as American President. However, more than a century before the former Arkansas Governor was tracing his roots to the Cassidy clan in County Fermanagh another former President was conducting a tour of the land of his ancestors.
Ulysses Simpson Grant was the 18th President of the United States of America from 1869 to 1877. He first achieved international recognition as the leading Union general in the American Civil War.
On April 27, 1822, Grant was born in a log cabin in Point Pleasant, Clermont County, Ohio. He was the eldest of the six children of Jesse Root Grant (1794–1873) and Hannah Simpson Grant (1798–1883). Hannah’s father was John Simpson who was born in County Tyrone, at Dergnagh (in Irish, 'red, marshy ground'), between Dungannon and Ballygawley, in 1738. He immigrated to Pennsylvania in the American colonies aged 22, in 1760.
John Simpson’s grandson Ulysses reached prominence by taking Fort Henry in 1862 – one of the first Union victories of the American Civil War. Having ventured into politics following his successful army career, Grant was elected President of the United States as a Republican in 1868. He was the first President to serve for two full terms since Andrew Jackson 40 years before.
Just after leaving the White House in March 1877, Grant travelled from May 1877 to September 1879 – and Ireland was the 21st country on his itinerary. Grant's five-day tour throughout Ireland in 1879 was part of a world tour after his two-term presidency ended – and led him by rail from Dublin through Louth, and then in a circuit throughout Ulster for overnight stays in Derry and Belfast.
Accompanied by Belfast Mayor John Browne, Grant visited the city's enormous Harland & Wolff shipyard in January 1879. The Boston Globe reported that 2,000 workmen welcomed Grant, gathering around his carriage, with one yelling out 'Three cheers for Grant!'.
Grant spoke in Coleraine about the close ties between the Irish and Americans. According to one report, he drew an 'immense crowd' in Ballymena, where an American 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.
In Derry, he also received a tumultuous reception. 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 honour 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 US tariffs, he said. He added that there was plenty of room in America for Irish emigrants.
Grant died on July 23rd, 1885, having been terminally ill with throat cancer. There have been subsequent reminders of the ex-president in Ireland. In 1907, the immense steamship christened the ‘President Grant’ was built at the Belfast shipyard he had visited; and the Grant Ancestral Homestead near Dungannon, in County Tyrone's Clogher Valley has been restored in recent decades, offering tourists a glimpse of Grant's Irish ties as well as 19th century life in rural Ireland.
The cottage came into public ownership in the 1970s. During restoration, it was discovered that there were large sections of mud walls reinforced with reeds, and an original mud and wattle canopy fireplace came to light, immediately dating the homestead to the 15th century. Today the homestead and farm have been restored to the style and appearance of the mid 18th century small holding.
The cottage has two rooms with mud floors and has been restored and furnished with functional period pieces including a settle-bed and dresser. A selection of typical agricultural implements are on view - ploughs, turf creels and a horse-drawn cart. The adjoining visitor centre tells the full Grant story and has interesting exhibits of rural life, an audio-visual theatre and a souvenir shop.
The farmhouse at Dergnagh – not far from Ballygawley – is a far cry from Washington and the White House. It was here that the maternal ancestors of Ulysses Simpson Grant raised their families, tended their animals and harvested their crops. It is a little corner of Tyrone that can famously consider itself a direct link to one of the most distinctive of American Presidents.