Amid all the furore about statues and slavery, there has scarcely been a word about the fact that the most prominent statue in Dublin commemorates a political figure who had a profound impact on the slave trade. That politician was Daniel O’Connell whose statue stands proudly at the entrance to the main street of the city named in his honour.
Unlike other cities where heated debates are taking place about the appropriateness of leaving certain statues on their plinths, the people of Dublin can have nothing but pride in the statue of O’Connell because, among other things, he was one of the leaders of the campaign to abolish slavery in the British empire.
O’Connell was a towering political figure of his day not only in Ireland but across the western world. His hold on the popular imagination in this country has faded over the past century as his commitment to non-violent politics was replaced by official reverence for the cult of blood sacrifice.
If people know anything about O’Connell it is that his campaign for Catholic Emancipation ended in victory, while his subsequent campaign for repeal of the Act of Union ended in failure. That failure is usually ascribed to his refusal to countenance violence to achieve his ends.
What very few people, apart from academic historians, are aware of is that O’Connell was one of the great international champions of the anti-slavery movement. Unlike some more radical Irish nationalists, he was concerned not simply with achieving freedom for his own people but of tackling injustice wherever it was to be found.
He campaigned for the abolition of slavery and an end to discrimination against the Jewish people with the same vigour he applied to the Irish cause. “For the rights of Catholics and universal liberty,” was his motto, and he proceeded to denounce injustice wherever he found it, regardless of the potential damage to the Irish cause, particularly in the United States.
Addressing an anti-slavery meeting in London in 1829, O’Connell declared that “of all men living, an American citizen, who is the owner of slaves, is the most despicable”.
In the same year he addressed the annual meeting of the Cork Anti-Slavery Society and praised the liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar, for his anti-slavery policies. He contrasted Bolivar with his counterparts in North America and denounced George Washington for owning slaves saying: “America, it is a foul stain upon your character.” He regularly insisted that while he longed to go to America, “so long as it is tarnished by slavery, I will never pollute my foot by treading on its shores”.
It was only natural that when Frederick Douglass visited Ireland in 1845 he insisted on meeting Ireland's most vocal opponent of slavery
As his most recent biographer Patrick Geoghegan has pointed out, many people in the United States, even those who did not support slavery, resented being lectured to by an Irish man in such a trenchant fashion, and he also alienated some of his supporters at home with his uncompromising stance.
When the national political movement he led contested its first general election in 1832, every candidate for the Repeal party was pledged not only to the restoration of a parliament in Dublin but to the abolition of “Negro slavery”.
In the Commons, O’Connell raised the issue again and again and also promoted a Bill for the emancipation of the Jews who suffered a litany of disabilities under the law. He denounced colonialism in Australia and New Zealand as carrying rum and genocide in its train.
O’Connell put his principles into action by refusing to accept money for the Irish cause from anybody in the US who defended slavery. This stance was an important factor in alienating the Young Irelanders who believed the Repeal Association should address only domestic, not international, affairs. They were particularly uncomfortable with the aggressive way O’Connell alienated supporters in the United States.
O’Connell’s speech to the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in June 1840 was hailed as one of his great orations. That event also provided an insight into the breadth of his political vision. The conference refused to admit women delegates on the grounds that such a move would subject the anti-slavery movement to ridicule in England. Asked for his opinion on this, O’Connell wrote: “My mature consideration of the entire subject convinced me of the right of female delegates to take their seats in the convention and of the injustice of excluding them.”
It was only natural that when Frederick Douglass, the most famous black abolitionist of the 19th century, visited Ireland in 1845 he insisted on meeting Ireland’s most vocal opponent of slavery, and they spoke together at an anti-slavery rally in Dublin.
When O’Connell died three years later, Douglass noted that it was not just a blow for Ireland, it was the end of “a great champion of freedom”.
In 2020 as the Irish State commemorates the violent events of a century ago, it may be worth recalling that we have a virtually unsung national hero whose entire career was devoted to non-violent political action.
He is someone everybody in this country, whatever their skin colour or ethnic background, can be proud of. His generous and inclusive message, that all lives matter, is as relevant in our day as it was during his lifetime.