In September 1771, Benjamin Franklin arrived in the city of Dublin, in the company of colonial agent Richard Jackson. One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin is a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776, though five years earlier he was based in London, attempting to negotiate on behalf of the American Colonies. Franklin detailed his views of Dublin and Ireland in a letter to Thomas Cushing, a lawyer and statesman from Boston, Massachusetts. Franklin had a keen interest in Irish affairs, writing in a letter two years prior to visiting the country that “all Ireland is strongly in favor of the American cause. They have reason to sympathize with us.”
While in Ireland, Franklin was struck by the contrast between the grandeur of Dublin city itself and the intense poverty of those beyond its core. He commented to Cushing that:
Ireland is itself a poor country, and Dublin a magnificent city; but the appearances of general extreme poverty among the lower people are amazing. They live in wretched hovels of mud and straw, are clothed in rags, and subsist chiefly on potatoes. Our New England farmers, of the poorest sort, in regard to the enjoyment of all the comforts of life, are princes when compared to them.
Franklin visited the Irish parliament at College Green, and was granted the honour of sitting in the chamber of the parliament alongside the elected Irish parliamentarians. To Franklin, this was “a mark of respect for our country.” It should be noted that the Irish parliament of the time was off-limits to the Catholic majority in Ireland, and was an entirely Anglican assembly, something later parliamentarians would seek unsuccessfully to reform. Franklin wrote of the parliament on College Green, telling Cushing:
Before I left Ireland I must mention that being desirous of seeing the principal Patriots there, I stayed till the Opening of their Parliament. I found them disposed to be friends of America, in which disposition I endeavored to confirm them, with the expectation that our growing weight might in time be thrown into their scale, and, by joining our interest with theirs, might be obtained for them as well as for us, a more equitable treatment from this Nation. There are many brave spirits among them, the gentry are a very sensible, polite and friendly people. Their Parliament makes a most respectable figure, with a number of very good speakers in both parties, and able men of businesses.
While in Ireland, Franklin spent three days at Hillsborough, County Down. He was a guest to Lord Hillsborough, the Colonial Secretary and a political opponent (frequently described as a nemesis) who he had encountered in Dublin. Walter Isaacson in his biography of Franklin writes that this was an “astonishingly friendly visit”, with Franklin writing to Cushing that he believed Hillsborough was not genuine in his friendliness but rather “he apprehended an approaching storm and was desirous of lessening beforehand the number of enemies he had so imprudently created.”
Franklin traveled on from Ireland to Scotland, where he was again shocked by an intensely poor peasantry. Following his trip to Scotland and Ireland he returned to London, though he returned to the United States in March 1775. The rest, as they say, is history.
In 1977, the American Ambassador presented a bust of Benjamin Franklin to the Bank of Ireland to commemorate the visit. Speaking at the unveiling of the bust, the Ambassador (Walter J.P Curley) noted that
Franklin’s friendship for Ireland was no fleeting whim. He had said “You have ever been friendly to the rights of mankind and we acknowledge with pleasure and gratitude that your nation has produced patriots who have nobly distinguished themselves in the cause of humanity and America.”