Christine Kinealy writes about the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass who visited Ireland and came to be known as the “Black O’Connell.”
In 1845, Frederick Douglass traveled to Ireland. He stayed there for only four months, but regarded the experience as “transformative.” Fifty years later, an American friend, who claimed to have accompanied the recently deceased Douglass on that visit, published his recollection of the first meeting between the 27-year-old fugitive slave and Ireland’s 70-year-old “Liberator,” Daniel O’Connell:
“Douglass had a letter of introduction from Charles Sumner, but when O’Connell’s servant announced that there was a colored man at the door, the great Irish-man rushed out and clasping Douglass in a warm embrace, said: ‘Fred Douglass, the American slave, needs no letter of introduction to me.’
Delightful though it is to imagine the doorstep encounter at O’Connell’s Merrion Square home, it is unlikely that it ever took place. In fact, only one brief, unplanned meeting between Douglass and O’Connell has been recorded, and it seems to have marked the beginning, and the end, of any direct communication between the two men. Nonetheless, Daniel O’Connell and Ireland were to become a major influence on the fugitive slave’s subsequent political development, and in his transformation from an abolitionist to a human rights activist.
What were the steps that brought Douglass to Ireland? Douglass had been born into slavery in Maryland in 1818. His given name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but he changed it to Frederick Douglass. His father was a white man, possibly the master of the plantation. Douglass was separated from his mother when an infant and only saw her four or five times. He had been taught to read by the wife of one of his owners; this was rare, because teaching slaves to read had been outlawed.
When Douglass was about 12, two Irishmen working in the same ship yard advised him to, ‘run away to the north.’ Eight years later, aged only 20, Douglass escaped from his servitude. It was a brave decision as, even when resident in the northern states of America, he would be in danger of being returned to slavery. Regardless, he did not hide from public view, giving lectures that provided a powerful personal testimony of the horrors of slavery. His passion and eloquence launched his career as an anti-slavery lecturer on behalf of the abolitionist and social reformer William Lloyd Garrison.
In 1845, Douglass published his autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. The resulting publicity put him in danger of capture, so he was persuaded to travel to Ireland and from there, to Britain, for safety and to lecture on anti-slavery.
Douglass arrived in Ireland on August 31, 1845. He wrote immediately to friends in America, “I am now safe in old Ireland, in the beautiful city of Dublin.” Initially, his stay was to be of only a few weeks’ duration, but it was prolonged when a Dublin abolitionist, Richard Webb, offered to publish an Irish version of the Narrative.
The timing of Douglass’s visit coincided with the first appearance of a blight in the potato crop. At this stage nobody knew that the crop failure would mark the onset of prolonged famine in Ireland. Douglass did comment on the poverty of the Irish people, even in Dublin. But he, like O’Connell, drew an important distinction between Irish oppression and American slavery, explaining, “The Irish man is poor, but he is not a slave. He may be in rags, but he is not a slave. He is still the master of his body.”
Moreover, being in Ireland’s capital city proved a liberating experience:
“One of the most pleasing features of my visit, thus far, has been a total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me, on account of my color. The change of circumstances, in this, is particularly striking. . . . I find myself not treated as a color, but as a man – not as a thing, but as a child of the common Father of us all.”
Inevitably, Douglass’s presence in Ireland attracted attention in the local press, his appearance being described in detail, albeit through a racialized lens:
“Evidently from his colour and conformation, descended from parents of different race, his appearance is singularly pleasing and agreeable. The hue of his face and hands is rather a yellow brown or bronze, while there is little if anything in his features of that particular prominence of lower face, thickness of lips, and flatness of nose, which particularly characterize the true Negro type. His voice is well toned and musical, his selection of language most happy, and his manner easy and graceful.”
There were many highlights in Douglass’s stay in Dublin: meeting with Father Mathew, “the Apostle of temperance”(Douglass was himself a champion of temperance); being invited to dine with the Lord Mayor of Dublin in the Mansion House; and hearing O’Connell speak in Conciliation Hall.
By the 1840s, Daniel O’Connell was the most famous and outspoken abolitionist on both sides of the Atlantic. He had been committed to this cause since the 1820s, and, as a new member of the British parliament following Catholic Emancipation, had played a pivotal role in ending slavery in the British Empire. O’Connell’s abolitionist activities were known and simultaneously applauded and deplored in the United States. In the introduction to the first edition of the Narrative, William Lloyd Garrison had referred to the Irishman thus: “Daniel O’Connell, the distinguished advocate of universal emancipation, and the mightiest champion of prostrate but not conquered Ireland.” By doing so, Garrison had created a tangible link between the seasoned Irish abolitionist and the young rising star of American anti-slavery.
O’Connell was at the radical end of the abolition movement, consistently arguing for immediate, not gradual, abolition, and insisting that black people were the equals of white people – an unpopular view at the time. Unusually, O’Connell also saw the ending of slavery, and his demand for Irish independence, as part of wider struggle for human rights, a view not shared by many abolitionists or nationalists. He averred:
“I am the friend of liberty in every clime, class and colour. My sympathy is not confined to the limits of my own green island; my spirit walks abroad on sea and land, and wherever there is oppression, I hate the oppressor.”
In contrast, on arrival in Ireland, Douglass claimed that he was concerned with only one issue – the ending of slavery.
However, O’Connell’s internationalist view on human suffering was to have a profound impact on Douglass’s own political development.
Douglass claimed that as a slave he had heard his master berate O’Connell’s anti-slavery activities and that he had read some of his speeches, which had been reprinted in American newspapers. It was no surprise then, that while in Ireland he would want to hear the Irishman in person. Douglass was not, as it has sometimes been suggested, invited to Conciliation Hall, the headquarters of the Repeal Association, by O’Connell. Hearing that O’Connell was in Dublin, he decided to attend a Repeal meeting, although once there, “having observed the denseness of the crowd, I almost despaired of getting in.” But he did squeeze in and, in a letter he composed later that night, admitted to having been entranced by O’Connell’s eloquence:
“I have heard many speakers within the last four years – speakers of the first order; but I confess, I have never heard one, by whom I was more completely captivated than by Mr. O’Connell. . . . It seems to me that the voice of O’Connell is enough to calm the most violent passion. . . . There is a sweet persuasiveness in it, beyond any voice I ever heard. His power over an audience is perfect.”
Towards the end of the meeting when the audience was thinning out, Douglass moved to the front of the hall where he was introduced to O’Connell by a fellow American. He was then invited on stage to say a few words. Douglass recorded, “although I scarce knew what to say, I managed to say something, which was quite well received.” In the course of his short speech, his admiration for the Irish man was palpable:
“The poor trampled slave of Carolina had heard the name of the Liberator with joy and hope, and he himself had heard the wish that some black O’Connell would yet rise up among his countrymen and cry ‘Agitate, agitate, agitate!’” he said.
The phrase “Black O’Connell” appears to have originated with Douglass, who, later in life, would suggest that the appellation had been bestowed upon him by O’Connell – a claim that has been frequently repeated. However, the real significance of this phrase is what it reveals about Douglass’s appeal for black people to take responsibility for their own liberation.
Douglass left Dublin at the beginning of October, to travel to other parts of the country. He gave lectures in Wexford, Waterford, Youghal, Limerick and Belfast. His treatment as an equal continued to surprise and delight him. He wrote, “I saw no-one that seemed to be shocked or disturbed at my dark presence. No one seemed to feel himself contaminated by contact with me.”
Douglass left Ireland in January 1846. He continued his tour in Britain, staying away from America for almost two years. He gave almost 200 lectures, over 40 of them in Ireland. On the eve of his departure from Belfast, Douglass reflected on his isolation: “. . . as to nation, I belong to none. . . . The land of my birth welcomes me to her shores only as a slave, and spurns with contempt the idea of treating me differently. So I am an outcast from the society of my childhood, and an outlaw in the land of my birth.”
He went on to add, “I can truly say, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country.”
Shortly after leaving Ireland, Douglass wrote to Garrison. The letter revealed that, as a result of this visit, he had come to see the crusade for abolition as part of a much wider struggle for social justice:
“I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift up my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over. He who really and truly feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart to the woes of others; and he who thinks himself an abolitionist, yet cannot enter into the wrongs of others, has yet to find a true foundation for his anti-slavery.”
Douglass’s time in Ireland freed him in another way; he wrote his own Preface to the Irish edition of Narrative, thus demonstrating a new-found confidence in no longer having to rely on a white abolitionist to give his writing authority.
Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 as a free man, his freedom having been “purchased” for £150. Nonetheless, even on the return journey from Liverpool he was subjected to racial discrimination. When home, Douglass continued lecturing and writing, even starting his own newspaper. His recently declared commitment to equal rights for all was evident in 1848 when he was one of the few men to sign the declaration supporting the rights of women at the Seneca Falls Conference. Over the subsequent decades, Douglass fought for civil rights in all areas of life, arguing for black men to serve in the Union army, for equality in the Reconstruction Era, and for an end to the racist Jim Crow laws. During his lifetime, he held many public positions. He also supported and advised six American Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln. However, he never lost his affection for Ireland, even speaking at a meeting in Washington to promote Home Rule.
Douglass’s time in Ireland, when he became “a man,” helped to consolidate his view that the struggle of black slaves was part of a wider struggle for social justice. His experiences in 1845 provided a prism through which he could view suffering and oppression everywhere, and articulate the demand for universal human rights. This approach remained pivotal to his subsequent political activities. Towards the end of his life, Douglass served as Minister to Haiti. In 1893, no longer in that position, he paid public tribute to the beleaguered country – the first black republic – referencing both Ireland and Daniel O’Connell in his speech:
“It was once said by the great Daniel O’Connell, that the history of Ireland might be traced, like a wounded man through a crowd, by the blood. The same can be said of the history of Haiti as a free state.”
Frederick Douglass died in February 1895. O’Connell had passed away many years earlier, in 1847, not long after their brief, but significant, meeting. Their ideas outlived them.
In 2011, President Barack Obama, who has admitted the influence of Douglass on his own thinking, acknowledged Ireland’s role in Douglass’s development:
“For his part, Douglass drew inspiration from the Irishman’s courage and intelligence, ultimately modeling his own struggle for justice on O’Connell’s belief that change could be achieved peacefully through rule of law . . . the two men shared a universal desire for freedom – one that cannot be contained by language or culture or even the span of an ocean.”
Even if Daniel O’Connell, the Irish “Liberator” and Frederick Douglass, “the black O’Connell,” did not hug on a doorstep in Dublin, Douglass’s brief time in Ireland transformed him into a fearless champion of international human rights, whose legacy continues to inspire today.
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Dr. Christine Kinealy is Director of the Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. She is a Director of the Frederick Douglass/Daniel O’Connell Project. Her publications include Daniel O’Connell and Anti-Slavery: The Saddest People the Sun Sees (2011) and the forthcoming Private Charity and the Great Hunger: The Kindness of Strangers (Bloomsbury, 2013).