How life in Ireland inspired anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass in Ireland

Anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass will be commemorated in Cork City and Washington DC on February 10-15.

It will be the second annual ‘Douglas Week’ and will involve events across both cities, as well as virtual events to honour the inspirational writer and abolitionist.

The great civil rights activist Frederick Douglass drew inspiration for his campaign against slavery while living Ireland.

Douglas was born into slavery in Maryland, United States in February 1818. The exact date isn’t certain because his ‘owner’ didn’t keep detailed records. As an adult, he decided to celebrate the 14th of February as his birthday, because his mother had always referred to him as her “Little Valentine.”

Not that Douglas got to spend much time with his mother. Nor was he ever sure of the identity of his father. He wrote: “The opinion was whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion I know nothing.

“My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant. It was common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. I do not recollect ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.”

Douglas was a highly intelligent boy and began to learn to read and write with the help of his owner’s wife, who was gentle and kind. However, the owner put a stop to the lessons because he feared education would make slaves seek their freedom.

When Douglass was 12, he was working in a shipyard in Maryland when two Irish labourers advised him to runaway to the North if he ever got the chance. It took him eight years, but he eventually did just that.

He had fallen in love with free black woman Anna Murray, who encouraged him and provided money to help him escape. He boarded a train and set off for the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles in New York. He later wrote of his relief at escaping.

“I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life.

“I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions. Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.”

Douglass wrote his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845. It became an instant bestseller and earned him enough money to buy his freedom.

Frederick Douglass in Ireland

Despite his new legal status as a free man, he feared his former owners may try to pull him back into bondage. His friends urged him to travel to Ireland as many other former slaves had done with great success.

Many Irish people felt they were effectively in bondage themselves as they were so dependent on their landlords who could evict them from their smallholdings at any time. It meant the Irish could empathise with the plight of slaves more than most people across Europe.

Douglass arrived in Ireland just as the Great Famine was beginning due to the failure of the potato crop. He was moved by the poverty he saw but also inspired by the welcome he received and the sense of freedom he could enjoy as he walked the streets of Dublin.

He found the country non-threatening; in a way he had never experienced before.

He 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 am now safe in old Ireland, in the beautiful city of Dublin.

“I breathe, and lo! the slave becomes a man. 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 lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow n*****s in here!’” Editor’s note: We don’t wish to cause offence with the words here. Of course, Douglass wrote the word in full, but we have blanked out offensive terms to enable our readers to understand what was written, while hopefully causing minimum offense.

It wasn’t just the ordinary people of Ireland who inspired him. There was also the extraordinary force of nature, Daniel O’Connell – the great Liberator who achieved Catholic emancipation and was referred to by King George IV as the king of Ireland. Douglass met O’Connell several times and the two became friends.

O’Connell held ‘monster meetings’ attracting hundreds of thousands of people. He was a great orator who could keep his audience spellbound. Douglass was inspired and wrote of O’Connell’s ‘‘sweet persuasiveness… beyond any voice I ever heard.’’

What impressed Douglass most was that O’Connell preached peaceful, non-violent protest as a means to achieve change. Dialogue was the way forward, not armed resistance.

It was a message Douglass adopted himself in his campaigns. He was always willing to talk to anyone and hear the opposing point of view. He was later criticised by some abolitionists for holding talks with slave owners but he replied: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

Douglass lived in Ireland for four months and also toured Great Britain giving lectures and holding meetings with Irish and British abolitionists.

He returned home to the United States in 1847, shortly after the death of O’Connell. Before leaving Ireland he wrote to a friend saying: ‘‘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.’’

He left a lasting impression on Ireland and memorial plaques have been placed on buildings where he held some of his meetings, such as the Imperial Hotel in Cork and Waterford City Hall.

2020 is the 175th anniversary of Douglass arriving in Ireland. To mark the occasion, the Irish Embassy in the US is staging a number of events. More details here

October 2020 marked the 175th anniversary of when Douglass visited Cork, when he made several speeches on the evils of slavery. Local people launched a campaign to have a street in Cork named in his honour.

One of the organisers of the campaign, Dr Donal Hassett, said: “Commemorating Douglass would send a signal about how Cork is now a vibrant, multicultural city, particularly in the light of the conversations going on around Black Lives Matter – it would say Cork is an inclusive and tolerant city that embraces diversity.”