Celtic Junction Arts Review
Frederick Douglass Found His Voice in Ireland
The Emergence of an Abolitionist
The first time Frederick Douglass spoke before an audience was in 1841 at an abolitionist meeting held on Nantucket Island. He was asked to share his story with the crowd and with knees knocking, Douglass took to the podium and recounted his life of twenty-three years with clarity and eloquence. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, he educated himself because it was illegal for anyone else to educate him. He taught himself not just to read and write but armed with a copy of the Columbian Orator Douglass learned the great speeches, debates, and discourses of history. He escaped to New York after twenty years of brutal and dehumanizing treatment and later made his way to New Bedford, Massachusetts.1
The audience was nothing less than mesmerized by Douglass’s story, in content and delivery. Among the audience members was renowned abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who was so impressed with Douglass’s story that he asked Douglass to join the American Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison put Douglass on the lecture circuit, traveling through the free states of America, sharing his life story, building on his natural oratory talents, raising awareness for the anti-slavery cause, and becoming one of the most well-known former slaves in the country.
Douglass’s growing popularity created a problem for the escaped slave. At any time, regardless of where he was in America, he could be sent back to his former master in Maryland under the Fugitive Slave Act. Douglass was in perpetual danger, but he continued lecturing to large crowds in support of abolition. Partially in response to critics who did not believe the incredible life story Douglass presented in his speeches, he published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in May of 1845. This volume quieted some skeptics and cemented his celebrity status among supporters. His recapture became more of a possibility with every passing day. Other slave narratives were published during this time, but none of them had such a profound impact as Douglass’s Narrative.
By August of 1845, William Lloyd Garrison convinced Douglass it was time for him to make another escape, this time across the Atlantic to Great Britain. Garrison had Douglass’s safety in mind and saw the opportunity to grow relationships with British abolitionists and raise the profile of the American movement internationally. Douglass made the difficult decision to leave his young wife and four children behind and set sail for Liverpool, England in August 1845.
Exile Begins: Dublin and O’Connell
Frederick Douglass arrived in England in late August 1845 and crossed the Irish Sea bound for Dublin. Once there he wrote to American friends, “I am now safe in old Ireland, in the beautiful city of Dublin.” Douglass could finally exhale. This may have been the first time in his life that he did not fear for that life. Douglass began what was initially slated as a four-day visit to Ireland but evolved into a four month stay when a Quaker printer named Richard Webb offered to publish an Irish version of Douglass’s Narrative.
Douglass was extremely well-read and familiar with Ireland’s history of British colonization and political, economic, and religious oppression. He was keenly aware of the work of the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. He recalled hearing his “masters” discussing an incident which was a newspaper sensation in 1837. The Ambassador to the United Kingdom from the United States, Andrew Stevenson met the Irish statesman Daniel O’Connell and O’Connell refused to shake Stevenson’s hand because of his support of slavery. The slave owners of Maryland expressed true disdain for O’Connell’s snub and his radical abolitionist beliefs. Douglass knew that any man his “masters” hated that much; he surely would love to meet.
Eight years later Douglass had the opportunity to meet Daniel O’Connell. In Dublin, Douglass attended a Repeal meeting at Dublin’s Conciliation Hall on September 28, 1845. Douglass was impressed by the large and enthusiastic crowd gathered to hear O’Connell speak. In a letter to William Lloyd Garrison Douglass writes.
At the close of this business, Mr. O’Connell rose and delivered a speech about an hour and a quarter long. It was a great speech, skillfully delivered, powerful in its logic, majestic in its rhetoric, biting in its sarcasm, melting in its pathos, and burning in its rebuke.
O’Connell was more than a champion for Catholic Emancipation and the repeal of the Act of British Union (enacted in 1800, which through bribery and corruption removed the parliament from Dublin to London), he was fiercely anti-slavery and believed that freedom and liberty would come when all human suffering ceased. In Ireland, Douglass began considering America’s future beyond ending slavery and towards equality for all. At times during his speaking engagements, Douglass had to reel himself in to stay focused on his anti-slavery message.
Blighted potatoes were first reported in Ireland in 1845, and this would grow into the Great Famine (Great Hunger) over the next several years when over one million Irish perished and two million emigrated. But even before the Famine took over Ireland, Douglass observed the extreme poverty in the Irish countryside and Dublin alike. He saw the Irish were oppressed economically, socially, and religiously, but he echoed O’Connell’s assertion that the oppression of the Irish was not the same as slavery in America. Douglass said, “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.” Douglass’s time in Ireland exposed him to oppression which existed outside of America and it provided a new perspective and even deeper understanding for him on the issues faced at home.
When Douglass was called to speak onstage with O’Connell at that September 28th meeting in Conciliation Hall, he immediately charmed the audience with his manner, his compliments, and these important words which tied their struggle to his own and suggests a “black O’Connell” may be the solution:
The poor trampled slave of Carolina had heard the name of the Liberator with joy and hope, and he himself had heard the wish that some black O’Connell would yet rise up among his countrymen and cry ‘Agitate, agitate, agitate!’— Frederick Douglass
Book Tour of Ireland
Not unlike twenty-first century authors, Frederick Douglass embarked on a tour of Ireland to promote the Irish edition of Narrative. In October 1845, he left Dublin and began a circuit through Wexford, Waterford, Youghal, Cork, Limerick, and Belfast. Of his experience in the Irish countryside Douglass writes, “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.”
On October 20th, Douglass was welcomed on stage in Cork City at a Temperance meeting by the “Apostle of Temperance” Father Theobald Mathew. Douglass spoke of the challenges faced by African Americans with respect to temperance, citing the propensity of slave owners to ply their slaves with alcohol to dull their spirits. Douglass earned the appreciation from the crown of 250 people that evening by wrapping up his talk with a song. On a personal level, Douglass had abstained from alcohol for years, but he still took the pledge with Father Mathew.2
As Douglass’s philosophical outlook was expanding, he began to take greater control over the dissemination of his message. Douglass was intimately connected with the production and distribution of the Irish edition of Narrative. He knew how many books had sold at each stop on the tour and monitored the location of the books as they navigated the terrible Irish roads in the torrential Irish downpours, all by horse and carriage. He wrote from Belfast in early 1846, “Well all my Books went last night at one blow. I want more [,] I want more.”3
Douglass’s four months in Ireland afforded him the space to gain perspective, sharpen his focus, and secure his position at home. Ireland was (and is) a land of thinkers and debaters, and Douglass found a vibrant intellectual community. Douglass’s primary goal was still to abolish slavery, but he also saw a fight for justice and freedom for all of humanity. Ending slavery was not enough, equality must be achieved. Douglass wrote in 1846:
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…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.
Returning Home with Renewed Focus
From Ireland, Douglass continued his lecture tour in Scotland, England, and Wales through 1846. In a controversial twist, Douglass’s freedom was purchased by a group of women abolitionists in England. This was the only way Douglass could safely return to America and get back to his important work at home.4
Although a free man, Douglass was still not allowed to travel first class on the journey home. This was symbolic of the necessary work to be done beyond abolition to secure human rights and opportunity for all people. Douglass had found his voice in Ireland and Britain and returned home with an independent spirit and confidence not found in his younger years. He moved to Rochester, New York, separated himself from William Lloyd Garrison and started his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. Douglas also became involved with the women’s suffrage movement, attending the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and forming a friendship with Susan B. Anthony.5
In the twenty-first century, Americans have visited Ireland in record numbers (and will continue the trend soon). Some are tourists looking to experience a new culture or to relax in the gorgeous landscape. Others want to complete their family tree, to solve the mystery of generations-old ancestry. And some people visit Ireland with something specific in mind: the pursuit of music, language, or golf. Anyone who goes to Ireland with an open mind comes away with something- it may not be exactly what they were looking for or expected, but they return home refreshed, recharged, and somehow improved. Ireland has that effect on people. It had that effect on Frederick Douglass.
To learn more, watch the Frederick Douglass Symposium, a conversation on history, solidarity, and racial justice in Ireland and the US hosted by the Celtic Junction Arts Center on Oct 30, 2020.
1. Throughout 2020, the 175th anniversary year of Frederick Douglass’s visit to Ireland, Dr. Christine Kinealy has shared her expertise through numerous online lectures, symposiums, and articles which provided the foundation for this article. Dr. Kinealy of Quinnipiac University and Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute spent eight years getting to know Douglass while transcribing his 50 Irish speeches. Dr. Kinealy edited the book, “Frederick Douglass and Ireland: In His Own Words.” https://www.qu.edu/on-campus/institutes-centers/irelands-great-hunger-institute/frederick-douglass-remembered.html
2. Laurence Fenton, “The great abolitionist Douglass and Cork’s Apostle of Temperance,” Irish Examiner (February 28, 2014) https://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/arid-20260328.html
3. Tom Chaffin, “Frederick Douglass’s Irish odyssey,” Irish Times (February 2, 2015) https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/frederick-douglass-s-irish-odyssey-1.2084550
4. Visit https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/07484_FPS.pdf for details on the process of buying a slave’s freedom.
5. This article discusses Frederick Douglass and Women’s Suffrage: https://www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2011/09/frederick-douglass-a-womens-rights-man/245977/