The Under-Told Connection of Frederick Douglass & Ireland

Frederick Douglass & Daniel O'Connell, Courtesy of

Frederick Douglass, 31 August 1845—1 January 1846

At 27 years of age, he already had lived a lifetime. Enslaved. Escaped. On the run, knowing that his former “master” could recapture him, and by so-called “legal rights”, take his life. A newly-published author of a best-selling autobiography, and now, in the late summer of 1845, a passenger crossing the Atlantic to Ireland for a quick meeting with a publisher to republish his book for the Irish who also were thirsty for his freedom story. Frederick Douglass, by daring to republish for an international audience, hoped to divert the increasingly-disquieting attention he and his young family were receiving at home. His Irish sojourn accomplished far more than that.

Mr. Douglass’ time in Ireland is variously referenced as an “odyssey,” “compelling,” “a place where he found his voice.” 

On his final day there, in a letter he wrote to William Lloyd Garrison, Mr. Douglass spoke of his time in Ireland with these words,

“I can truly say, 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.”

This Ireland stopover was to be four days of meetings with his publisher. 

Then he was to whisk across the channel for a planned two-year speaking tour in England, Scotland, and Wales to sell his books and further the cause of the American abolitionist movement. Upon stepping foot on Irish soil, he later wrote:

“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.”

He continued,

“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 lips to tell me, ‘We don’t allow n****** in here!’” (from his follow-up memoir, My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855).

That four-day visit mushroomed into four months! 

More than fifty speeches, many book sales, and a circuit via horse and buggy through the windy, rainy Irish countryside took him to Cork, Limerick and Belfast, with brief stops in Wexford, Waterford, and other smaller villages. He drew large crowds, for the Irish people felt great affinity with the enslaved, the shared experience of human suffering to unite them.

Fast forward to 2020. Spring. The Covid pandemic is ramping up worldwide. 

Also gearing up are American and Irish scholars preparing to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ visit to the Emerald Isle. Though the celebrations had to pivot to online, their enthusiasm remained! Celebrants were reminded that Ireland in the mid-1800s was fertile ground for Mr. Douglass’ abolitionist message. Not only had other freed slaves been to Ireland—and been well-received there—but Ireland was known for its anti-slavery sentiment. As well as for its vibrant intellectual community of thinkers and debaters. The year 1845 in Ireland also marked the sprouting of the first blighted potatoes—a political and social tragedy that would grow into a million deaths and two million emigrants seeking to live—Ireland’s own continuing struggle for independence from the British Empire, growing tensions between the Catholics and the Protestants, and, in the midst of it all, Daniel O’Connell (aka Ireland’s Liberator) still standing at the height of his political influence.

Back to 1845. 

Thanks to the welcome reception of the Irish intelligentsia, Mr. Douglass spoke to hundreds of Irish citizens the length and breadth of the country. He met Daniel O’Connell and was welcomed by him to speak on the same stage, later writing of this encounter, “[it was] stirring…like a summer thunder-shower upon a dusty road” and spoke of being “more completely captivated by Mr. O’Connell” than by any other speaker of the first order. Mr. Douglass was changed by being seen and heard by the Irish people, and by his repeated experience of their empathy. Here are some of his reflections, which I invite you to read aloud, letting their tones refresh and nourish:

[In all the countryside] “I saw no-one that seemed to be shocked or disturbed by my dark presence. No one seemed to feel himself contaminated by contact with me.”

[I was struck by the] “…total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me, on account of my color…I find myself not treated as a color, but as a man.” By contrast, “The land of my birth welcomes me to her shores only as a slave, and spurns with contempt the idea of treating me differently.”

“I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and 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.”

“The Irish man is poor, but he is not a slave. He may be in rags, but he is not a slave. He is still the master of his body.”

“He who really and only feels for the American slave cannot steel his heart of the woes of others; and he who thinks himself an abolitionist, yet cannot enter into the wrongs of others, has yet to find a true foundation for his anti-slavery faith.”

Other writers have noted—what you can no doubt discern as well from these few quotes—that Frederick Douglass’ Ireland sojourn opened his eyes, beyond his own experience of suffering, to develop within himself a compassionate activist perspective towards all human suffering.

His meeting Daniel O’Connell was iron sharpening iron in regard to public speaking, helping to sharpen his extraordinary skills and transform more fully into a commentator on contemporary issues. From his Irish visit, Mr. Douglass “honed habits of independence, discretion, compromise, self-reliance and practical politics that served him over the coming decades” (Tom Chaffin).  He met poverty and suffering that drew him into the lives of others, expanding his vision to include women’s rights and various other struggles for justice. The oldest Irish American newspaper in the U.S., The Irish Echo, noted,

“Although many Irish Americans opposed his civil rights efforts, Douglass viewed the Irish in America and Ireland as a persecuted people and drew parallels between them and blacks (sic). O’Connell’s adherence to non-violent societal change left a strong impression. Douglass viewed his efforts on behalf of Irish freedom as an instructive tale for blacks (sic), writing: “‘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.’”

On New Year’s Day of 1846, four months after he’d arrived, Mr. Douglass left Ireland to continue his speaking/book tour in England, Scotland, and Wales. 

Surprisingly, within a few months, the tour was cut short by a controversial twist. Douglass’ freedom was purchased by a group of women abolitionists in England, who paid his most recent “master” the sum of 150 pounds sterling, or $771.66 USD. Mr. Douglass could safely return home. As noted during the 175th anniversary of Mr. Douglass’ overseas visit, “Douglass had (more fully) found his voice in Ireland and Britain and returned home with an independent spirit and confidence not found in his younger years.” He moved his family from Boston to Rochester, New York. He started his own abolitionist newspaper. He became involved with the women’s suffrage movement. He attended the Seneca Falls Convention, where he and Susan B. Anthony struck up their lifelong and cherished friendship. (Fun fact: across the street from Anthony’s former home in Rochester, you can gaze at a bronze sculpture of the two revolutionaries sitting together, thoughtful, engaged in conversation, a small table between then with a teapot and two cups; the work is entitled, “Let’s Have Tea” and was erected in 2001 to honor their shared commitment to justice and freedom.)

Frederick Douglass embodied intersectionality—a term with roots in Black feminist activism and coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw—some 140 years earlier. 

Perhaps these intertwined roots go much deeper and clarify for all of us a much longer route. Douglass walked the path, enslaved and free, timid and confident, both in his home country of the United States and across the sea in Ireland. In his courageous travels, and in mutually embracing one another with the arms of freedom’s message, both Douglass and the Irish people model the hard work of confronting history while also deepening one’s commitment to rewrite a more just future.

To learn more—better still, to walk in the footsteps he took in Ireland —check out Frederick Douglass Way walking paths in Dublin…or Cork…or Belfast!

“I despise any government which, while it boasts of liberty, is guilty of slavery, the greatest crime that can be committed by humanity against humanity.” – Daniel O’Connell speaking in 1845, the year of Frederick Douglass’s arrival in Ireland
‘Douglass was gratified by the manner in which he was received in Ireland. He was struck by the “total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me, on account of my color.’.. I find myself not treated as a color, but as a man.”
Burdened by their own sense of grievance at the social and economic conditions that were the lot of the majority of the Irish people in 1845, there was an evident feeling of affinity with those who suffered under the yoke of slavery. Nonetheless, as Douglass made clear, the situation of the Irish, while they suffered from depravation and discrimination, was a far cry from what he had endured during his life as a slave in Maryland. The Irish had the right to leave and seek new lives for themselves in the USA and elsewhere.
We celebrate Ireland’s connection with Frederick Douglass on the 175th anniversary of the months he spent on our shores. We do so because of our recognition of Douglass’s historic importance and because this story resonates in an Ireland that is now more ethnically-diverse and multi-racial than it has ever been before. The Douglass story is also important as we reach out to African Americans who are part of a multifarious Irish diaspora whose breadth and heterogeneity we now recognize and celebrate.’
~ Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s Ambassador in Washington DC. , 23 September 2020