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The Harp Without The Crown – Frederick Douglass in Ireland
A MURAL OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS ON THE SOLIDARITY WALL IN BELFAST, IRELAND
“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
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.