Irish catalyst in Obama's journey

Tue, Jan 20, 2009, 00:00

ANALYSIS:Forget Moneygall. There is a more significant Irish element to the make-up of Barack Obama than a tenuous Offaly connection, writes Patrick Cosgrave

BARACK OBAMA owes a whole lot more to Ireland than an ancestor or two. His journey of change and his central vision were born 150 years ago because of Ireland. Ireland was the “transforming” catalyst in an extraordinary untold journey of change. And understanding the roots of that extraordinary journey begins with a simple question: Who inspired Barack Obama? One figure appears to stand above all others: Frederick Douglass.

So who was Frederick Douglass and why has his influence on Obama been told, across the pages of the New York Timesand International Herald Tribune, by his former students and leading historians? In short, because it was Douglass who first began Obama’s journey of change over 150 years ago; because it was Douglass who first articulated a vision for a truly United States of America; and because it was Douglass who first articulated change in a way America has never forgotten and in a way Obama has given a new meaning.

In 1818, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, but aged 20 he escaped. He rose to become the foremost African-American abolitionist and one of the most significant figures in American history. Most academics, such as Harvard historian Prof Henry Louis Gates, confidently conclude that “Douglass towered over Lincoln as a brilliant orator, writer, agitator, and public figure”.

Douglass may have begun Obama’s journey of change over 150 years ago, but what is most surprising is that the greatest catalyst for that journey of change appears to have been Ireland. It was because of Ireland that Douglass was first able truly to articulate his vision for a United States of America.

In 1845, Frederick Douglass, aged just 27, left the United States for Europe. While Douglass’s star had been on the rise, his morale had begun to sink. He hoped for “a little repose” in Europe, where he might regain his strength. His first port of call, outside of a night in Liverpool, was Ireland. He stayed for nearly six months.

Two of Douglass’s biographers, Alan Rice and Martin Crawford, note that he arrived as “the raw material of a great black figure”. Within weeks, however, Douglass began to transform. In a letter from Ireland to William Llyod Garrison, one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass wrote: “I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life.” He went on to add that, “instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, gray fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man! I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as a slave, or offer me an insult.”

Prof Patricia Ferreira, of Norwich University, concludes that “although from a young age Douglass possessed the inclination to be a leader, Ireland was the site where this trait blossomed”. However, it wasn’t just Douglass’s ability to lead that blossomed in Ireland, so too did his vision. His vision grew from that of a champion of African-American rights, to that of a champion of universal human rights.

In another letter to Garrison from Ireland, Douglass wrote: “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 faith.”

Indeed “archival research in both Ireland and Boston, as well as scrutiny of Douglass’s letters,” Ferreira writes, “reveals how Douglass’s association with the Irish resulted in a new preface and appendix to [his book] the Narrative which ultimately demonstrate a shift in [Douglass’s] sense of self that bespeaks his emerging position as a world champion of human rights.”

In turn, Douglass’s vision for the United States of America grew to reflect his expanded world view. He hoped that one day all citizens would be treated equally “without regard to colour, class or clime” and that the United States would become a “more perfect union”.

By 1850, he had firmly broken with the traditional Garrisonian disunionist line and had begun “to employ union as an inspirational concept”, to quote Prof Rogan Kersch of New York University in Dreams of a More Perfect Union. And some 150 years later, Obama would emerge to once again “employ union as an inspirational concept”.

Ireland was also the site, according to Prof Bill Rolston, where Douglass “honed both his oratorical and political skills”. “He gave countless lectures, 50 in Ireland alone”, and had the good fortune of speaking alongside Daniel O’Connell. Douglass later recalled O’Connell’s “truly wondrous eloquence”. “Until I heard this man,” wrote Douglass, “I had thought that the story of his oratory and power were greatly exaggerated . . . but the mystery was solved when I saw his vast person, and heard his musical voice. His eloquence came down upon the vast assembly like a summer thunder-shower upon a dusty road. He could stir the multitude at will, to a tempest of wrath, or reduce it to the silence with which a mother leaves the cradle-side of her sleeping babe.” Douglass concluded that he “never heard surpassed, if equalled, at home or abroad” such soaring rhetorical brilliance.

Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 “transformed” by his Irish experience. He went on to become, in the words of Prof James A Colaiaco who wrote a book on his rhetoric, the “greatest orator of the 19th-century”. It was the type of oratory that inspired Obama. A former student of Obama’s recalls, in the New York Times, “his professor’s admiration for the soaring but plain-spoken speeches of Frederick Douglass”.

That admiration was on show in the final weeks of Obama’s campaign when he constantly quoted one of Douglass’s most famous lines: “Power does not concede.”

Some years previous, according to the New York Times, Obama told his class while a lecturer at the University of Chicago law school that “no one speaks [like Douglass] anymore,” as he “wondered aloud what had happened to the art of political oratory”.

At that time, Obama “in particular, admired Douglass’s use of a collective voice that embraced black and white concerns”.

The Douglass that Obama admired was the Douglass “transformed” by Ireland. Prof Scott Williamson writes in The Narrative Life, that the years from 1848 onwards “mark the years of his maturity as a thinker”. Dr Michael Cohen, a former Democratic speech writer and contributor to the the New York Times, concludes that “the thinking of the older Douglass appears to have had a . . . significant impact on Obama’s political thinking and . . . his campaign rhetoric”.

Douglass, it seems, inspired Obama more than any other individual. Because it was Douglass, “transformed by Ireland”, who first truly set in motion Obama’s journey of change some 150 years ago; because it was Douglass, “transformed by Ireland”, who first formulated the very vision that Obama has made his own; and because it was Douglass, “transformed by Ireland”, who first articulated change in a way America has never forgotten and in a way to which Obama has given a new meaning. “Behold the change!” Douglass wrote from Ireland. Behold Obama!

Patrick Cosgrave is co-founder (with Oisín Hanrahan) of the Irish Undergraduate Awards ( He is interested in US politics and worked for a time with the election campaign of former US president Bill Clinton