Grant, Charles (1778–1866), Baron Glenelg , chief secretary for Ireland, was born 26 October 1778 in Kidderpore, Bengal, eldest son among three sons and two daughters of Charles Grant, MP and landowner, and Jane Grant (née Fraser). Until 1790 he lived in India and thereafter was privately educated in London by the Rev. John Venn and the Rev. Henry Jowett. He matriculated at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1795, graduating BA (1801) and MA (1804). While at university he received a number of prizes and was elected a fellow of Magdalene. He was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn, London, in 1807 but never practised as a lawyer. His natural intellectual abilities, coupled with religious zeal, would have made him ideal as a cleric or tutor but he decided instead to follow his father's footsteps and go into politics. He was MP for Inverness borough (1811–18) and the county of Inverness (1818–35). It was probably while serving as a lord of the treasury (1813–19) that he developed a taste for the penny-wise policies that were to make him so unpopular with protestants in Ireland.
In summer 1818 the British government sought a replacement for Robert Peel (qv) as chief secretary for Ireland. Two MPs refused the post before Grant was appointed in August 1818. Contemporary satirists in Ireland joked that a dearth of suitable statesmen led to Dublin Castle being saddled with a dithering fool known for his pro-catholic stance. One pamphleteer in 1820 complained that ‘from your very first landing you have gone on acting in direct opposition to the principles and conduct of all who have ever preceded you’ (A letter to the Rt Hon. Charles Grant, 4). The crux of the problem was that Grant was sandwiched between two protestant stalwarts: Lord Talbot (qv), the lord lieutenant, and William Gregory (qv), the under-secretary. In order to ensure smooth government it was imperative that holders of these three posts worked in unison. But Grant's views on the role and size of the army in Ireland, the powers of the magistracy, the schooling of catholics and protestants, ecclesiastical patronage, and the catholic question were not in keeping with Castle policy. Though Gregory and Talbot praised Grant for his intellect, piety, and good manners, they were infuriated by his interventions. In October 1819 the magistracy in parts of Galway complained about a series of disturbances which they could not quell without the support of the army. In the absence of both Talbot and Grant (who were in London at the time) the lords justices pressed for the reintroduction of the insurrection act. Grant undermined their authority by suggesting to the British government that these disturbances did not require such exceptional measures; he believed that there was no justification for treating Ireland as a special case and that ordinary civil police measures should be bolstered. But the riots became more serious in early 1820 and Grant belatedly had to concede that Ireland needed more troops to regain control over parts of Connacht. In 1822 he gave a speech in which he argued that the disturbances were mainly agrarian in nature like the Whiteboy riots of the 1760s. Gregory and Talbot by contrast believed that Ribbonmen and radical catholic priests were behind these disturbances and that tough military action would prevent trouble spreading to other counties.
Grant also made enemies among traditional supporters of Dublin Castle by interfering in government administration and patronage. Annoyed by the overtly pro-protestant and Orange line of the Hibernian Journal, he urged the lord lieutenant to remove its government grant. He also tried to prevent the annual decoration of the statue of William III (qv) in College Green, Dublin. In 1819 Talbot and Gregory wished to recommend an Englishman for the post of archbishop of Dublin whereas Grant wanted an Irishman, and at the by-election in Dublin in 1820 Grant supported a pro-catholic candidate whereas Talbot and Gregory backed his staunch Orange opponent. Grant sought to reduce the large annual grant paid by the government to support the Incorporated Society's charter schools for protestant children and to create instead a more universal education system in Ireland. Convinced that unemployment was the root cause of unrest, he submitted an elaborate plan for a £100,000 government interest-free loan package to create jobs in the countryside (rather like schemes he had observed in the Scottish Highlands). In November 1821 both Talbot and Grant were recalled to England.
Grant's tenure in Ireland was, from the point of view of Dublin Castle, a disaster. He was unpunctual, indecisive, neglected urgent administration, and was unable to give London an accurate picture of events on the ground in Ireland. When he applied himself to areas he considered important, such as education, he wrote elegant but long-winded letters and speeches. In November 1821 Gregory declared that ‘there is no confidence in Mr Grant’, who had arrived with the simplistic notion that ‘protestant tyranny and catholic slavery are the causes of disturbance in the country’ (Mr Gregory's letter-box, 164). Even some catholic gentlemen were dismayed by his delayed reaction to the disturbances in Connacht. But Daniel O'Connell (qv) found him to be the ‘kindest and best mannered man Ireland has ever yet seen’ (ibid., 116). Despite his failings Grant was driven by altruistic motives and had a genuine desire to improve Ireland. He was appalled by the conditions of the peasantry, especially during the fever epidemic of 1818, and his desire to give aid was undermined by a powerful under-secretary who controlled the levers of government in Ireland for more than half the year. O'Connell and his supporters were no doubt heartened by Grant's pro-catholic speeches, and an active campaign of petitioning similarly minded Scottish, Welsh, and English MPs helped them to achieve emancipation in 1829.
After leaving Ireland in 1821 Grant became vice-president of the Board of Trade and then president of the Board of Trade and treasurer of the navy (1827–8). From 1835 to 1839 he was secretary of state for war and the colonies, and was lampooned for his indelicate handling of crises in Canada and the Cape Colony. He was created Baron Glenelg (after his estate in Scotland) in May 1835 – the only palindromic peer of the time – and resigned from politics in 1839 with a £2,000 pension. The remainder of his life was devoted to books, society, and travel. He died unmarried in Cannes, France, 23 April 1866. An engraving in the NGI, based on a full-length portrait by T. C. Thompson, shows Grant with a hand placed on a book entitled ‘Ireland’.