On September 29th, 1845, a momentous meeting took place in Dublin between a 27-year-old American and a 70-year-old Irish man. The American had been born into hereditary enslavement but had self-emancipated seven years earlier. However, by the laws of his country, he was designated a “fugitive slave”. The Irish man had been born a second-class subject in his own country. During their long and eventful lives, both men would overcome prejudice and legal obstacles to fight for the civil rights of all people regardless of their colour, gender, ethnicity or religion. Almost 200 years later, their names are invoked as champions of peaceful political action that can lead to positive change.
In August 1845, Frederick Douglass had fled from America as he was in danger of capture and returned to enslavement following the publication of his best-selling Narrative, or life story. Following his arrival in the port of Liverpool, he travelled to Dublin where Richard Webb, a Quaker publisher and ardent abolitionist, had offered to print an Irish edition of the book. Douglass came to Ireland intending to stay for four days, but the warmth of the welcome meant that he remained here for four months. During this time he gave almost 50 lectures, while his Narrative proved to be so popular that a second Irish edition was published.
Even before arriving in Dublin, Douglass was aware of Ireland’s tumultuous history and long search for religious equality and political independence. When still enslaved, he had read speeches by Irish nationalists, including by members of the United Irishmen and Daniel O’Connell. He was impressed not only with their patriotism but that they placed their own struggles in a wider demand for international human rights. Douglass would later acknowledge that during his stay in Ireland he had come to realise, largely influenced by O’Connell, that it was not enough to be a single-issue abolitionist – oppression had to be fought wherever, and in whatever form, it existed. He explained, “I see much here to remind me of my former condition. 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.”
A pivotal moment in this transformation came when he attended a Repeal meeting in Conciliation Hall in Dublin on September 29th, 1845. As was usual, part of O’Connell’s speech was spent denouncing slavery in America. Douglass was transfixed. He admitted to being “completely captivated” by hearing the Irish man speak, saying “His power over an audience is perfect”.
When O’Connell was made aware of Douglass’s presence, he invited the visitor to join him on stage and to address the meeting. Although he was self-educated – it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write – Douglass proved that he was a match for the elder statesman in his ability to mesmerise an audience. Paying tribute to O’Connell’s achievements, Douglass told the audience that what his fellow enslaved people needed was “a black O’Connell” who would help them to liberate themselves.
Douglass returned to America in April 1847, his freedom having been “purchased” by female abolitionists. He then devoted his life to fighting for not only the end of enslavement, but also for equality for all. Like O’Connell and many other Irish abolitionists, he was frustrated by the failure of many Irish-Americans to oppose slavery, culminating in the heinous draft/race riots in New York in 1863.
The two men did not meet again but, until his death in 1895, Douglass would refer to his time in Ireland and to O’Connell as inspirations for his own political development. In 1889, then an elder statesman himself, Douglass was appointed consul general to Haiti – the first black republic in the world. Haiti had once been the richest island in the world but its economy had been bankrupted by being forced to pay reparations to France for daring to seek independence. For Douglass, the comparison was obvious. He told an audience in 1893: “It was once said by the great Daniel O’Connell, that the history of Ireland might be traced, like a wounded man through a crowd, by the blood. The same may be said of the history of Haiti as a free state.”
Douglass died on February 20th, 1895, aged 77. That very day he had attended a meeting for women’s rights, where he received a standing ovation.
To honour the historic meeting of these two humanitarians in 1845 – one of them reaching the end of his remarkable career, the other on the path to becoming an international champion of human rights – the African American Irish Diaspora Network is launching the Frederick Douglass/Daniel O’Connell Day. The day will be celebrated annually on the anniversary of their 1845 meeting. It will include a public lecture, which will alternate between Ireland and North America. The inaugural Douglass/O’Connell Day Lecture will be given next year on September 29th, 2022, by former president of Ireland Mary McAleese, in New York. This day will also be a time to reflect on what we, as individuals and as descendants of survivors of famines, displacement and enslavement, can do to effect positive change in the world.
At a time when religious freedom, hard-won women’s rights and even democracy itself are under threat, as the world faces humanitarian crisis after crisis, Haiti continues to struggle for food and financial security, Black Lives Matter and critical race theory continue to polarise opinion, and as we continue to kill the planet we live on, the words and wisdom of Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell remain prescient, powerful and pertinent.
When Douglass addressed a Dublin audience on that day in September, side by side with his hero, Daniel O’Connell, he borrowed a phrase often invoked by the Irish man, but which he would go on to make his own: “Agitate, agitate, agitate.” These three words remain a North Star for our times.