Relatives of Obama's hero lay wreath to O'Connell

 

FREDERICK DOUGLASS must have cut a dashing figure on the streets of Cork back in 1845.

At six foot four and sporting a shock of grey-flecked hair, the great black orator and statesman, a hero of Barack Obama, had a penchant for three-piece suits and quoting Shakespeare.

He had travelled to Ireland in 1845 to begin a two-year lecture tour of the “British Isles” following the publication of his famous book, Narrative of a Life of an American Slave.

The book had been an instant bestseller in the US and was to prove influential in rallying support for abolition.

However, the publicity surrounding it earned Douglass a steady stream of death threats from firebrand anti-abolitionists.

As an escaped slave, Douglass also feared his new-found fame would come to the attention of his ex-owner who might try to retrieve his “property”.

His associates thought it best for him to leave the country until the controversy surrounding the book died down.

Before crossing the Atlantic to Ireland, Douglass wryly observed that he was sailing from “American republican slavery, to monarchical liberty”. However, the warm reception he received on these shores revived his spirits and strengthened his commitment to fight for social justice. He was, in his words, treated for the first time, “not as a colour, but as a man”.

Douglass travelled the length and breadth of the country, drumming up support for his cause. Much of his stay was spent in Cork as the house guest of Thomas and Ann Jennings and their eight children, immersed in family life and, according to his letters, the gossip of the local community.

“I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation, I live a new life,” he wrote of his time in Ireland.

It was a chance meeting with Daniel O’Connell at a rally in Dublin which was to have a lasting effect on Douglass. O’Connell was a passionate opponent of slavery, refusing to ever shake hands with slave owners.

Both he and Douglass were gifted orators and immediately saw common cause in each other’s struggle for social reform. O’Connell was fond of referring to Douglass as “the black O’Connell of the United States”.

At an event in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery last night, hosted by aid agency Concern, marking the publication of a new edition of Douglass’s book, his great-great granddaughter Nettie Douglass and her son, Kenneth B Morris, laid a wreath at O’Connell’s crypt.

Adding a certain symmetry to the occasion, Ms Douglass was met at the graveside by Anne Quinlan, the great-great-great granddaughter of O’Connell.

Ms Douglass said she wanted to thank all Irish people for what their ancestors did in welcoming Frederick Douglass in 1845, “for making him feel human”.

Mr Morris also spoke of his illustrious ancestor’s tragic beginnings, never knowing his father, separated from his mother in infancy; “a six-year-old boy sleeping in a potato sack and trading bread for reading lessons”.

Journalist and author Don Mullan, who wrote the introduction to the new edition, said Douglass had drawn a comparison between his former slave days and the suffering and conditions of the Irish.

In her foreword to the new edition, President Mary McAleese said of O’Connell and Douglass that “they made common cause with suffering humanity wherever it was”. A visit to Glasnevin Cemetery and the O’Connell memorial is under consideration as part of Mr Obama’s visit later this month.