Ireland’s links with black freedom

Frederick Douglass in Ireland: The Black O’Connell

J. Anthony Gaughan

During his visit to Dublin in 2011 President Barack Obama referred to Frederick Douglass, the renowned abolitionist. Few of the President’s listeners would have been aware of how important Douglass was in the American Freedom Movement. 

Of mixed race, Douglass’ father was a slave owner, his mother a black slave.  Born in a wretched cabin in Talbot County in Maryland, in 1818, Douglass was cared for by his grandmother, while his mother, who died before he was seven years old, worked in the fields.  He spent his early years in the service of one of the leading land-owners in Maryland. Later he was sent to work in the port of Baltimore.

At Baltimore two Irishmen, fellow-navvies on the docks, encouraged him to escape to the North. He took the ‘Underground Railway’, which helped slaves to escape from the South, and settled near Boston, where he joined the American Anti-Slavery Society.  This had been established by Quakers and received most of its support from the Society of Friends.  

Self-taught and remarkably articulate, he soon became the Society’s leading speaker at anti-slavery meetings across New England.  He told his audience that the marks of lashes on his back were a living witness to the beatings, cruelty and indignities visited on slaves.  


For dramatic effect he invariably exhibited a whip for administering punishment to slaves and a neck-chain and fetters used when slaves were transported from place to place.

Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, an incendiary attack on slavery which he published in 1845, so outraged the Wasp element in US society that his supporters feared for his life or that he would be captured and returned to serfdom in the South.  

So they sent him on a lecture tour of Ireland and the United Kingdom.  In Dublin he attended one of O’Connell’s rallies urging Repeal of the Union.  

He later professed to have been over-whelmed by the experience.  

O’Connell, who had an international reputation as a campaigner for an immediate and radical end to slavery, later invited Douglass to address some of his rallies to that end. 

 Their friendship, however, did not last as a few years later Douglass was most critical of O’Connell.  This occurred when, during a campaign in the US for support for ‘Repeal’, O’Connell refused to address the issue of slavery, lest he lose the support of the Irish-Americans in the South.

Douglass also met Fr Mathew, the Apostle of Temperance.  Like the Capuchin he was a fierce critic of the abuse of alcohol.  Both agreed it was a major factor in the enslavement of those, whose lot they were determined to improve.  

As in the case with O’Connell, Douglass later was angered when Fr Mathew, while campaigning for temperance among the Irish in the US, failed to confront the slavery suffered by blacks.  Like O’Connell, Fr Mathew argued that he did not wish any issue to distract from his main aim – in his case that of promoting temperance among the Irish in the US.

Douglass, when he deemed it to be necessary, was abrasive to friend and foe alike.  He was also arrogant, pompous and prone to take offence easily.  In his addresses he flayed the Protestant Churches for their acceptance of slavery.  As a Methodist, his comments on his fellow-followers of John Wesley were particularly harsh.

The Catholic Church did not escape his wrath; although he did point out that no black person was ever refused entry into a Catholic church!

It was the ‘Liberator’ himself who conferred the soubriquet ‘the Black O’Connell’ on Douglass, a title he deserved by virtue of his oratorical skills and relentless campaigning for social justice and human rights.

In this study Laurence Fenton provides both a splendid portrait of ‘the Black O’Connell’ and a fascinating account of the interplay of events in the US and Ireland at that time.