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“I saw no one that seemed to be shocked by my dark presence…no one seemed to feel himself contaminated by contact with me.” Quotation from Frederick Douglass at a Cork City, Ireland Temperance Meeting October 10, 1845.
Hello, this is John Conlan, host of The Rocky Road to Dublin here on KBMF, and welcome to this episode of The Harp Without the Crown, where I will be discussing Frederick Douglass’ visit to Ireland in 1845.
Frederick Douglass was born enslaved on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1818. After escaping from slavery he began to speak at northern abolitionist meetings about his experiences in slavery. He gained a reputation as a committed abolitionist, social activist and skilled orator. In 1845 he published the book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which detailed names of slave owners and places of his enslavement. He is considered to be one of the most prominent abolitionists of his time.
American abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, wanted to raise international awareness concerning slavery in America. They generally felt international pressure on America’s populace and politicians would work toward abolishing slavery. Douglass had become an impressive orator exposing the evils and contradictions of slavery and was encouraged to travel overseas to gain support for their cause. Garrison also feared Douglass might be captured and re-enslaved after the publication of his book, and encouraged him to travel overseas for his own safety. For two years he traveled to Ireland, England and Scotland where he gave lectures about the evils of slavery and also sold copies of his book. He was later able to purchase his freedom for $711.66 with the assistance of the Richardson family from England. He eventually returned to America where he continued to be active in anti-slavery activities until his death.
Douglass left America for England on August 16,1845 aboard the Cambria with traveling companion James Buffum, a Massachusetts politician and abolitionist. He had a first class ticket but was forced to sleep in steerage because he was African-American. He arrived in Liverpool two weeks later, and in two days he immediately crossed the Irish Sea for Dublin. He reached Ireland just seven years after escaping enslavement in Maryland. “I am now safe in old Ireland, in the beautiful city of Dublin.” Douglass arrived at the height of the Irish Famine and was shocked at the poverty he saw in Ireland. He became a champion of Irish independence after witnessing first hand the suffering of the native Irish under the British crown. Despite the poverty Douglass saw, he noted that “the Irishman is poor, but he is not a slave…he may be in rags, but he is not a slave.” Douglass was impressed with his reception in Ireland because he was “treated like a man not a color.”
The Douglass trip to Ireland was sponsored by the Dublin based Hibernian Anti Slavery Society. The Society was founded by Dublin-born Richard Allen and focused mainly on anti-slavery and temperance issues. The group also advocated for prison reform and eliminating the death penalty. The society had ties with American abolitionist groups and was considered by contemporaries to to be the most active anti-slavery organization worldwide. One of its many goals was to “put an end to the unholy alliance between Irishmen and slave owners in America.”
Richard Webb, a Society member and publisher, took the lead role in organizing and scheduling Douglass’ Irish trip. Douglass gave lectures in Belfast, Dublin, Limerick, Waterford and Cork. What was to be a short four day lecture tour turned into a four month stay for Douglass.
The Douglass lectures in Ireland described in detail the personal trama of slavery and his escape from enslavement in Maryland. He described slavery as making “a chattel of man…laboring under the lash of the driver.” He always pointed out that the United States could not live up to the ideals of its Constitution when there were thirteen free and thirteen slave states in existence. He was also critical of organized religious groups as hypocritical because they would not take a public stance against slavery. In Dublin he challenged audience members to advocate for freedom and liberty of African Americans, and by doing so “you will honor the name of Ireland.” He was met with enthusiastic cheers throughout that address, which lasted an hour and a half. Douglass and Buffum displayed slave collars and whips for audiences to view during lectures, shocking the audience with the brutality of slavery. Although Douglass was enthusiastically welcomed in Ireland, he did experience racial prejudice while in Belfast. Graffiti demanding his return to America and racist comments found on advertisements for his lecture did not deter Douglass from lecturing in Belfast.
Among the many highlights of the Douglass trip was meeting Daniel O’Connell, who was named “The Liberator,” for his work in reducing and removing many British government restrictions placed on the Catholic majority in Ireland. Prior to arriving in Ireland, Douglass had read the speeches O’Connell and other Irish nationalists had made concerning human rights. He was impressed with their efforts in supporting international human rights.
Douglass first met O’Connell in Dublin in September 1845 at a public lecture featuring “The Liberator.” O’Connell was discussing rent repeal issues but as usual devoted a majority of his speech denouncing slavery in America. Douglass found the speech “captivating,” especially when O’Connell noted “I am the advocate of civil rights and religious liberties, all over the globe.” Later that evening Douglass was invited by O’Connell to address the crowd as he detailed the anti-slavery movement in America. Their friendship continued throughout their lives, although they never crossed paths after Douglass left Ireland.
While in Ireland, Scotland and England, Douglass accomplished many objectives. He increased awareness throughout that part of world concerning the evils of slavery and the importance of anti-slavery activism. The trip provided a platform to provide a meaningful first hand account of slavery. He also strenghtened ties between the various anti-slavery organizations overseas and in America. His international travel led to his freedom being obtained for him by the Richardsons of England. In addition to these important events, Douglass often referred to his time spent in Ireland as transformational. Later in life Douglass would repeatedly mention how influential Daniel O’Connell had been in making Douglass realize it was not enough to be a single issue abolitionist, but to fight for the civil rights of all people throughout the world. During their long and eventful lives both men would overcome prejudice and obstacles to fight for the civil rights of all.
This is John Conlan and thanks for listening to this episode of The Harp Without the Crown.