The escaped slave and the Irish 'Emancipator'


COMMON GROUND ON ABOLITIONISM:O’Connell tormented the slave-owners of America. Douglass heard about his campaign from afar

‘I AM determined wherever I go . . . to speak with grateful emotions of Mr [Daniel] O’Connell’s labours. [Cheers] I heard his denunciation of slavery. I heard my master curse him, and therefore I loved him.” [Great cheers] – Frederick Douglass: Cork speech, 1845

When Frederick Douglas, the escaped, self-taught slave who became America’s greatest fighter against slavery, travelled to Ireland in 1845, he would have been well aware of O’Connell’s reputation as a champion of abolitionism.

For 20 years the latter had, from afar, been tormenting the slave-owners of America and their apologists, and unflinchingly demanding of a reluctant Irish America that it repudiate the practice.

He was well known in America, widely quoted as one of Europe’s most celebrated abolitionists. In 1829, a group of black ex-slaves held a series of meetings in New York to pay tribute to him, but it was a cause that would cost him dear politically, splitting his US Repeal movement down the middle.

We don’t know exactly when Douglass first heard O’Connell’s name cursed, but it may well have been in Maryland in 1838, just before he made his successful freedom break from his master Hugh Auld, and seven years before his trip to Ireland.

O’Connell had publicly snubbed Andrew Stevenson, the American ambassador to London, calling him a “slave-breeder”.

The latter responded with a demand for a duel, duly declined. But the row caused headlines and editorials around the world, denunciations in the American Senate, and words of displeasure from Queen Victoria, worried about spoiling the tone of the transatlantic relationship. Plus ça change . . .

In some respects, O’Connell and Douglass were political twins, not least in their mutual admiration for each other – O’Connell called Douglass the “Black O’Connell” after hearing him speak in Dublin. Both men were by all accounts superb orators, similarly espoused non-violence, and generously saw in each other’s great causes – of repeal of both the Act of Union and of slavery – logical extensions of their own work, as was also to be the cause of women’s emancipation for Douglass.

The four months he spent in Ireland as a guest of one of Europe’s most militant abolitionist groups, the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society – in Cork, Dublin and Belfast – was a critical time for his ideas and for confirming in him his vocation as a campaigner.

Even in the relative safety of Massachusetts he was still in danger from slave catchers, a threat that the publication of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, sharply increased.

The book, reprinted by Dublin publisher Richard Webb in two sell-out editions in Ireland, recounts vividly the story of his brutal life as a slave and of escape, and it complemented his now significantly more dangerous work as a travelling speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society.

A temporary move to Ireland and Britain to continue that work became an opportunity to broaden and deepen his perspective on slavery, to see other forms of oppression if not on a par, then certainly comparably heinous. “I am,” he said, “the advocate of civil and religious liberty all over the world wherever oppression shows itself.”

He describes in letters home his pleasure – “some of the happiest moments my life” – and surprise at being treated so well, and not just by his largely Protestant middle-class hosts, but by ordinary people in the street or at the meetings to which they thronged.

In a letter to the prominent American abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass said that one of the most “pleasing features” of his visit to Ireland was that there was “a total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me, on account of my colour”. It was not an experience he would have had with the Irish in America.

But his horror at the conditions of the poor in rural and urban Ireland as the Famine took hold enraged him. He describes to Garrison the streets teeming with wretched beggars and homeless, starving children whose pleas “were such as to make me ‘blush and hang my head to think myself a man’. I speak truly when I say I dreaded to go out of the house.”

It was a sensitivity that, as his biographer William McFeeley notes, was probably not shared by many of his liberal hosts who were quick to deplore the treatment of Africans in America but could not see their fellow countrymen begging on their doorsteps.

When it came to abolition, however, Douglass was not afraid to confront local sensibilities, and in both Belfast and Scotland he ran a vigorous campaign against the willingness of the breakaway Presbyterian Free Church of Scotland, which had many adherents in the North, to accept contributions for its inner-city missions from slavery-supporting churches in the American south.

His “Send Back the Money” campaign, it has to be said, had echoes of an attempt by Garrison in 1842 to persuade O’Connell to refuse cash from branches of the Repeal movement which refused to condemn slavery. O’Connell justified the taking of this money, historian Christine Kinealy writes, by arguing that it was sent by people who loved Ireland more than they loved slavery.

“He further retaliated by accusing Garrison and some of his fellow abolitionists of being anti-Catholic – an accusation not without foundation.”

By the time Douglass arrived in Dublin, the row had blown over.

A lifelong teetotaller, Douglass was also much taken with Father Theobald Mathew, and his temperance campaigning, insisting in one letter that drink was a primary cause of poverty in Ireland. They became good friends and made common cause, although they would fall out much later when the latter refused to repudiate slavery when he went to America.

His four months in Ireland and nearly two years in Britain would be a time Douglass looked back on with great affection. They would see him win lifelong friends and supporters, and also gave him the financial independence both, controversially, to allow a supporter to buy his freedom from Auld before his return to America, and the capital to launch his next venture, his Northern Star newspaper.

Douglass on his time in Ireland

“ELEVEN DAYS and a half gone and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey 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 his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab – I am seated beside white people – I reach the hotel – I enter the same door – I am shown into the same parlour – I dine at the same table – and no one is offended . . .

“I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow niggers in here’!” – Frederick Douglass – letter to William Lloyd Garrison, friend and leader American Anti-Slavery Society (Jan 1846)

The Narrative