Grace was born in Ballylinan, Co Laois to James Grace and Eleanor May Russell (Ellen) while the family was away from home, and raised on Grace property at Ballylinan near the town of Athy, He was a member of the prominent and well-to-do family. In 1846, Grace sailed for New York against the wishes of his father, and worked as a printer’s devil and a shoemaker’s helper before returning to Ireland in 1848.
William married Lillius Gilchrist 11 Sept 1859. She was the daughter of George W. Gilchrist, a prominent ship builder of Thomaston, Me. They had eleven children.
William and his father, James Grace, traveled to Callao, Peru, in 1851, seeking to establish an Irish agricultural community. James returned home but William remained, where he began work with the firm of John Bryce and Co., as a ship chandler. In 1854, the company was renamed Bryce, Grace & Company, in 1865, to Grace Brothers & Co., and then W. R. Grace and Company.
Opposing the famous Tammany Hall, Grace was elected as the first Irish American Catholic mayor of New York City in 1880. He conducted a reform administration attacking police scandals, patronage and organised vice; reduced the tax rate, and broke up the Louisiana Lottery. Defeated in the following election, he was re-elected in 1884 on an Independent ticket but lost again the following time. During his second term, Grace received the Statue of Liberty as a gift from France.
William Russell Grace was a renowned philanthropist and humanitarian, at one point contributing a quarter of the aid delivered to Ireland aboard the steamship Constellation during An Gorta Mór in 1879. In 1897, he and his brother, Michael, founded the Grace Institute in NYC for the education of women, especially immigrants – which is still open today: https://graceinstitute.org/
His nephew Cecil Grace attempted a crossing of the English Channel in December 1910 in an aeroplane. He flew from Dover to Calais. However, in coming back he became disoriented and over Dover flew northeast over the Goodwin Sands toward the North Sea and was lost.