Frederick Douglass’s Irish odyssey

Tom Chaffin, author of Giant’s Causeway, assesses the influence on the the anti-slavery campaigner of his time in poverty-ridden and religiously divided Ireland

For young Frederick Douglass in August 1845, soon to leave Boston for a lecture tour of undetermined length of Ireland, Scotland and England, fame had proven a double-edged sword.

Tall and handsome, Douglass was in his late twenties then – just how late he did not know. Slavery had robbed him of knowledge of the exact circumstances of his birth – its precise date as well as certainty of his father’s identity.

He had escaped his bondage in Maryland in 1837 and soon found his way to the free soil of Massachusetts. Two years later, by then married and having started a family, he had established himself as a gifted orator on the abolitionist speaking circuit. Under the sponsorship of William Lloyd Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society, he travelled the states of the North, railing against human bondage and demanding that it be outlawed, activities that sparked frequent threats against him.

In spring 1845, Douglass published his first book– Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. The memoir stirred fresh hostilities. To avoid physical harm or being forcibly returned (by bounty-hungry "slave-catchers") to his bondage in Maryland, it was decided that, until things cooled down, he would leave the United States for a while, for a hastily and incompletely planned lecture tour of the British Isles.

After landing in Liverpool, Douglass and his white travelling companion, fellow abolitionist James Buffum, were to ferry across the Irish Sea to Dublin. There they would commence Douglass's lecture tour. While in Ireland, he would also work with Richard Webb, a Dublin printer, to publish a British Isles edition of the Narrative.

Still other motivations compelled Douglass’s overseas journey – personal desires left unspoken in public comments made before he sailed. His mother, from whom he was separated soon after his birth, was a slave. Although Douglass was never certain, he presumed that his father was a white man. And by travelling to the British Isles, the orator later wrote, he aspired “to increase my stock of information, and my opportunities for self-improvement, by a visit to the land of my paternal ancestors”.

The journey would transform the young man. Its impact upon him, particularly in Ireland, would be dramatic, lasting and, in the end, liberating. Put another way, in Ireland, Douglass found his own voice. “I can truly say,” he wrote home as he completed his travels there, “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.”

Before leaving Belfast and Ireland, Douglass, on January 1st, 1 846, writing to William Lloyd Garrison, gathered his impressions of Ireland: “My opportunities,” he wrote, “for learning the character and condition of the people of this land have been very great. I have travelled almost from the hill of ‘Howth’ to the Giant’s Causeway and from the Giant’s Causeway to Cape Clear.”

In Ireland, Douglass also met several individuals who made deep impressions on him – notably the “Liberator,” Daniel O’Connell; and Cork’s temperance movement leader, Father Theobald Mathew. As the tour progressed, Douglass anticipated – correctly, as it turned out – that newspaper coverage of his passage through Ireland and Great Britain would increase his stature as an international celebrity; and that publicity in foreign newspapers, refracted by the US press, would exponentially increase his renown in America: “My words, feeble as they are when spoken at home,” he told an audience in Cork, “will wax stronger in proportion to the distance I go from home, as a lever gains power by its distance from the fulcrum.” But little did Douglass calculate how that lever of publicity – by increasing the domestic renown that he had traveled to Europe to allow to wane – would, for him, soon nourish still greater worries over personal harm.

The tour of Ireland, Douglass’s first sojourn abroad, tested and transformed the young man’s still emerging identity – his private and public convictions; his self-reliance; his fealty to his wife, friends and colleagues; the depth of his courage; the mettle of his integrity; and the limits of his compassion for the world’s downtrodden. Indeed, as Douglass toured Ireland, a potato crop failure was shadowing the already impoverished island, a ruined harvest that would soon transmogrify into a catastrophe of unparalleled suffering, ruin, death and diaspora. Confronting that poverty, Douglass, writing home, noted that he found “much here to remind me of my former condition”. But he also found his compassion often undercut by repulsion before the island’s “human misery, ignorance, degradation, filth and wretchedness”.

Douglass’s tour consisted of extended stays, for multiple lectures, in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast. He also made brief stops in Wexford and Waterford. In a country then largely uncrossed by railroads, he conducted an alternately exhilarating and wearying forced-march of successive public performances. Yawning between each stop were long, cold, bone-rattling horse-and-carriage trips through wind- and rain-slashed, coastal mountains and other damp landscapes. In Ireland and Britain, no longer employed by others, Douglass fended for himself, organised his own itinerary and, to help finance the tour, sold copies of the book he had written – until then an impossibility due to a simple fact: most earlier tours had been conducted before the publication of his first book.

The Narrative, as it happened, had been published two months before Douglass's British Isles tour. In Ireland, as planned, he oversaw the publication of a British Isles edition of the book; afterwards, he did more than stay abreast of accounts and sell the new edition. He also tended to the logistics of transporting the books, or otherwise arranging for them to be sent from his Dublin publisher to each stop – thanks to robust sales, an often urgent task; "Well all my Books went last night at one blow," he pleaded from Belfast. "I want more[.] I want more."

Equally important, the tour accelerated Douglass’s transformation from more than a teller of his own life-story into a commentator on contemporary issues – a transition discouraged during his early lecturing days, by white colleagues at the American Anti-Slavery Society: “Give us the facts,” he had been instructed, “we will take care of the philosophy.” “Be yourself,” he was also told. Even so, lest Douglass, in diction and matter, seemed too refined during those years, he was also advised, “Better have a little of the plantation manner of speech than not, ‘tis not best that you seem too learned.”

By the era in which Douglass arrived in Ireland, fewer than half of the island’s population were exclusively speakers of Irish. By then, the language was largely confined to poor, often illiterate and rural areas. Moreover, during his Irish travels, Douglass’s hosts and those who attended his lectures were English-speakers; and his hosts numbered among the island’s more prosperous residents.

In Ireland, Douglass confronted a Pandora’s box of contentious issues – some of immediate relevance to him, others unique to the island; among the latter, he often possessed only a general familiarity. The ever present tensions between Catholics and Protestants proved especially difficult to navigate. As recounted by a local newspaper, during one lecture, responding to an accusation by a Protestant attendee that at another lecture in that same city, Douglass had maligned Protestants, he answered that, “It was not to be expected he could tell a Roman Catholic from Methodist by looking him in the face.”

Attempting to win favour with particular audiences – variously, each dominated by Catholics, Protestants, Irish nationalists, or United Kingdom loyalists – Douglass often strayed into controversies removed from the anti-slavery message that he came to Ireland to impart. But eventually, he disciplined himself to avoid fights not his own and to focus on his campaign to end American slavery.

“I only claim,” he confided to an associate midway through the tour, “to be a man of one idea.” Indeed, challenged during a lecture to explain why the subordination of Ireland’s poor to English interests might also warrant use of the term slavery, he answered, “that if slavery existed here, it ought to be put down.” But, he insisted, “there was nothing like American slavery on the soil on which he now stood”.

After Douglass’s return to America, he resumed his fight against American slavery in the South and for full civil rights for black people living in the North. In that latter effort, Irish-Americans of the North’s cities often numbered among his staunchest opponents. In May 1863, speaking in Brooklyn, he observed, “I am told that the Irish element in this country is exceedingly strong, and that that element will never allow coloured men to stand upon an equal political footing with white men. I am pointed to the terrible outrages committed from time to time by Irishmen upon negroes. The mobs at Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York are cited as proving the unconquerable aversion of the Irish toward the coloured race.”

Even so, to the end of his life, Douglass fondly remembered his 1840s lecture tour of Ireland and the welcoming reception he had been accorded. And though many Irish-Americans often opposed his civil rights efforts, he also viewed the Irish, in both Ireland and America, as a persecuted people. He even saw parallels between their plight and that of African Americans. Indeed, throughout his career, Douglass often invoked Daniel O'Connell and his struggles on behalf of Ireland as a cautionary tale for African Americans and, more broadly, the United States. In 1867, for instance, Douglass, in an Atlantic Monthly article observed that "what O'Connell said of the history of Ireland may with greater truth be said of the negro's. It may be 'traced like a wounded man through a crowd, by the blood."

Moreover, during his sojourn in Ireland, Douglass had honed habits of independence, discretion, compromise, self-reliance and practical politics that served him over the coming decades. Those habits eventually empowered him to play his career’s most defining role on the stage of world history-providing counsel for and assisting President Lincoln’s elevation of the US military’s actions during the American civil war from a campaign to preserve the Union to a moral cause devoted to vanquishing American slavery.