Among friends – Denis Fahey on Benjamin Franklin in Ireland

An Irishman’s Diary

Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill. During the autumn of 1771, the future signatory of the US Declaration of Independence visited Ireland. Photograph: Getty Images

Benjamin Franklin was America's first diplomat, initially in London where he represented a number of the colonies between 1757 and 1775 and later as the minister of the United States in France between 1776 and 1785. He was also a printer, a publisher, a philosopher, a scientist, an inventor and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

He had at least three Irish friends: Charles Lucas, one of the MPs for Dublin City; Edward Newenham, the MP for Enniscorthy; and "Omniscient" Richard Jackson, the MP for New Romney in Kent, who collaborated with him for many years. He had a mutually hostile relationship with another Irishman, Wills Hill, Lord Hillsborough, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. In October 1770, Hill tried, unsuccessfully, to have Franklin's credentials as the agent of the Massachusetts Assembly rejected because they hadn't been signed by the governor.

During the autumn of 1771, Franklin decided to visit Ireland and Scotland and on September 5th he landed at Dunleary, a small coastal village, then described by a contemporary writer as a sink hole of filth, accompanied by Jackson.

We don't have a complete itinerary of his seven weeks in Ireland but on October 8th he watched the ceremonies associated with the opening of a new session of parliament in Dublin as the bells of the cathedrals boomed, cannon were fired, crowds lined Dame Street and the Lord Lieutenant, Lord George Townshend, in his robes, and an entourage proceeded from Dublin Castle to College Green.

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Two days later, he and Jackson were received formally in the House of Commons and invited into the members' area behind the "bar", a moveable piece of wood across the entrance. The Speaker, Sexton Perry, in proposing the honour for Franklin, which was normally confined to visiting British MPs, observed that while the House would hardly consider the American Assemblies on the same level as the British Parliament, Franklin, a representative of some of these assemblies, was a gentleman of character. His motion was agreed unanimously but wasn't recorded in the proceedings of the House.

Franklin found the parliament well-disposed to America and he wrote later that he had endeavoured to “confirm the MPs with the expectation that our growing weight might in time be thrown into their scale and by joining our interest with theirs, (there) might be obtained for them, as well as for us, a more equitable treatment”.

He had intended to tour the south of Ireland but one day, while in Dublin Castle waiting to meet Townshend, he found himself in the same room as his adversary, Wills Hill. To his surprise, the man who, he had heard, had ridiculed him as a fractious fellow, an enemy of the king's service and a republican, now became very friendly, insisted that Franklin should stay at his seat, Hillsborough Castle in Co Down, and promised that his 18-year-old son Arthur would take him on a tour of the locality. Franklin recorded that he felt like a horse being patted and stroked while the reins were drawn tighter but as he would pass near Hillsborough on his way north to take a packet from Donaghadee to Port Patrick in Scotland, he could hardly refuse.

Whatever Hills' motivation, the tour can hardly have created the impression he might have wished. A few months later, in a letter to a friend Richard Cushing, in Boston, Franklin whose experience of Ireland had been confined to Dublin, his journey through Louth and Arthur's tour, wrote that while Ireland was itself a fine country and Dublin a magnificent city, the appearances of general extreme poverty among the lower people were amazing. They lived in wretched hovels of mud and straw, were clothed in rags and subsisted chiefly on potatoes. New England farmers of the poorest sort in regard to all enjoyments of the comforts of life were princes compared to them.

He blamed the discouragement of industry, the non-residence of pensioners, the leasing of farms by landlords to undertakers who “fleeced their tenants, skin and all” and the sending of rents as well as most of the pensions out of the country.

In 1774, when the Colonies placed some restrictions on the export of goods, he wrote to his son William that he would be sorry if Ireland was included because that country was “much our friend and the want of flax seed would distress the people exceedingly”.

In November 1778, “An Address to the Good People of Ireland”, allegedly signed by Franklin, denounced “the political Quixotes” of Great Britain and “the morbid languor of the Irish government”. Its authorship is disputed.

On February 18th, 1977, the then American ambassador to Ireland, Walter Curley, presented a bust of Franklin by John Behan to the Bank of Ireland in College Green. It is on display in a niche on the north corridor of the ground floor. This corridor escaped the renovations in 1803 after the bank bought the Parliament Building and it was almost certainly used by Franklin when he entered the Commons' Chamber.