On May 23rd, 2011, US president Barack Obama spoke about slavery and oppression to a crowd of up to 60,000 people in College Green in Dublin. "When we strove to blot out the stain of slavery and advance the rights of man," he said, "we found common cause with your struggles against oppression. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and our great abolitionist, forged an unlikely friendship right here in Dublin with your great liberator, Daniel O'Connell. His time here, Frederick Douglass said, defined him not as a colour but as a man."
But who, exactly, was Frederick Douglass? And what was he doing in Ireland in the 1840s, befriending O'Connell?
Christine Kinealy explores these and other questions in Frederick Douglass and Ireland: In His Own Words, two handsome volumes of letters, speeches and newspaper reports about Douglass's activities, with an extended introduction that draws the strands of this remarkable story together with measured, graceful scholarship.
Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in February 1818. Despite extraordinary hardship, he taught himself to read and write, and in 1837 fell in love with Anna Murray, a free woman. On September 3rd, 1838, Douglass escaped to New York, a free man. Twelve days later, he and Murray married.
Douglass devoted the following six decades to national and international campaigns to abolish slavery and promote human rights. He was tireless. He wrote and spoke with elegance and tenacity, and travelled the world with an utter disregard for his own wellbeing that eventually proved his undoing: on February 20th, 1895, after receiving a standing ovation at the National Council of Women in Washington, Douglass died of a heart attack.
While Douglass's work was unfinished at the time of his death – and remains incomplete today – his contribution to the abolition of slavery was inestimable and his personal story full of unexpected turns. In 1845, he published the memoir for which he is best known, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which placed him at risk of recapture. He fled to the United Kingdom and spent several months campaigning in Ireland, speaking at events in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Wexford, Waterford, Celbridge, Belfast, Lisburn, Hollywood and Bangor.
Douglass heard O’Connell speak at a public meeting in Dublin on September 29th, 1845, and was immediately entranced: “It seems to me that the voice of O’Connell is enough to calm the most violent passion, even though it were already manifesting itself in a mob. There is a sweet persuasiveness in it, beyond any voice I ever heard. His power over an audience is perfect.”
Douglass, too, commanded extraordinary rhetorical power and, as Kinealy shows, it was Douglass who coined a new name for himself to mark his historic meeting with the Liberator: “Black O’Connell.” This was probably the only time these two men met.
Kinealy tells her story well, making deft use of Douglass’s own words and the exhaustive newspaper coverage of his Irish speeches. She makes a compelling case that Douglass’s time in Ireland was a critical period in his evolution as an advocate for social change. Like many campaigners who start from personal experience, Douglass initially spoke almost exclusively based on his own life, but in 1840s Ireland he witnessed suffering that drew him increasingly into the lives of others.
In January 1846 he described the oppression of the Irish as the “same degradation as the American slave”, and although he attributed poverty in Ireland to personal rather than political factors, he remained gripped by the situation of the Irish. Ultimately, the cause of the slave was the cause of oppressed people everywhere. The suffering of one was the suffering of all, and Douglass’s vision duly expanded to include women’s rights and various other struggles in “the cause of humanity”.
Kinealy draws these themes from her rich trove of material with elegance and aplomb. She provides plenty of evidence that the impact of Ireland on Douglass was every bit as significant as the impact of Douglass on Ireland, if not more so.
There is, then, much to learn from Douglass’s story, both about him and about ourselves, and Kinealy presents these lessons with subtlety and conviction. A single volume, paperback edition of her book would undoubtedly help bring Douglass’s story and Kinealy’s conclusions to the wider audience that both deserve.
The most compelling lesson from Douglass’s life is the most sobering one. Today, more than a century after Douglass’s death, the rhetorical battle for rights might have been won in many parts of the world, but much of the injustice that Douglass described in the mid-1800s still exists: racial prejudice, social exclusion and gender discrimination, along with new forms of injustice and mass deception that Douglass could never have imagined.
So, while Douglass would have been delighted to see Obama speak as US president in College Green in 2011, he would undoubtedly be dismayed at other events of recent years, especially in the US. Douglass’s mission remains a work in progress and Kinealy’s fine book is an important step towards understanding why.
Brendan Kelly is professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of Hearing Voices: The History of Psychiatry in Ireland (Irish Academic Press) and Mental Health in Ireland (Liffey Press)