I was in Europe this year, and kept running into “Frederick Douglass spoke here” plaques. I didn’t see any in Ireland, though there are plenty of Daniel O’Connell commemorations. Turns out the two men had a very complicated relationship through the 1840s. Salon documents it and the Irish/American/Negro complications that came out of the troubles Ireland faced at that time.
Frederick Douglass’ four-month Irish sojourn – he traveled to Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast in 1845, part of a two-year stay in the United Kingdom – has long fascinated historians and others who care about human rights. Douglass crossed paths with the great Irish “Liberator,” Daniel O’Connell, a champion of his own people and also an abolitionist, who the younger leader praised as a mentor and an inspiration throughout most of his life. He flourished in Ireland, where he was seen as a man, not “chattel.” Mixing with intellectual elites, he – and they – realized that the auto-didact and former slave could more than hold his own. A statue of Douglass stands proudly in Cork’s University College today.
“I can truly say,” he wrote to his abolitionist ally (and sometimes antagonist) William Lloyd Garrison, “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.”
Yet comparatively little is known about what Douglass thought and felt about the most pressing Irish issues of that time – the fight to repeal the Act of Union with Great Britain, which had stripped the native Irish Catholic majority of many rights, and the gathering storm of the catastrophic potato famine. In the years around his visit, famine or its attendant diseases killed at least a million Irish and sent two million more fleeing the country. The potato blight was only a rumor and a worry when Douglass visited Ireland in 1845, but it was a crisis by the time he left England in 1847 to return to the U.S. How could such a towering human rights figure remain silent on the catastrophe, as it seemed he had?