Obama, O’Connell, and Douglass

Through the glass darkly

It is customary on St Patrick’s Day for the US president to speak glowingly of Ireland, invoking the name of the national saint and smiling when handed a bowl of shamrock. However, when President Obama this year made his remarks on St Patrick’s Day, he gave his audience a brief history lesson linking two remarkable men, one Irish and the other African American. The Irishman was Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847 ), the African American, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895 ).

O’Connell is one of the giants of Irish history and, together with Parnell, represents one of the two traditions in the movement for Irish independence, the other tradition, of course, being that of Tone, Emmet, the Young Irelanders, and the Easter Rising of 1916.

If we Irish know about O’Connell, then Obama and Black Americans certainly know about Frederick Douglass and, when the president visits Ireland next week, we can expect to hear much more about the great American social reformer, orator, author and statesman. The best way to learn about Douglass is to get hold of a copy of his brilliant autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (available in Penguin Books ). He spent his life in the struggle for freedom and equality not only for Blacks, but he was an early supporter of women’s suffrage and the rights of Native Americans.

In 1845, Douglass, concerned that his former owners might try to seek to recover their ‘property’, travelled to Ireland where, as it was under British law, slavery was illegal. His reception in Ireland moved him profoundly: “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... When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, 'We don't allow niggers in here!’”

Douglass spent two years in Ireland and England. In 1846, Douglass met Thomas Clarkson, the British abolitionist whose writings had been instrumental in persuading parliament to abolish slavery in Britain and its colonies.

In Ireland, his great friend was Daniel O’Connell, a life-long opponent of slavery. Speaking on the same platform with Douglass in Dublin, O’Connell declared, “My heart walks abroad and wherever the miserable is to be succorred, and the slave is to be set free, there my spirit is at home.” Douglass was very impressed with O’Connell’s ability “to stir the multitude”, while O’Connell dubbed Douglass “the black O’Connell of the United States”

Indeed, this side of O’Connell deserves to be better known. On the eve of debate on the Catholic Emancipation Bill, he risked offending members of parliament by speaking at an anti-slavery meeting, declaring, “I represent the Irish people here ... Come liberty, come slavery to myself, I will never countenance slavery at home or abroad.”

At the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, William Lloyd Garrison, the leading abolitionist in the United States, wrote that he did not believe any man “in the wide world” had “spoken so strongly against the American slave-holders as O’Connell”. O’Connell accused the Founding Fathers of lacking the “moral courage” to abolish slavery, and when told of Irishmen in America who supported slavery, he described them as “bastard Irishmen!”

It is ironic that O’Connell’s public declarations on slavery were a key factor in alienating the Young Irelanders. Both John Blake Dillon and Thomas Davis were sharply critical of his attacks on slave-holders, fearing it would lose them support. O’Connell declared he was “the uncompromising hater of slavery wherever it is to be found”, and that he knew his attacks threatened to bring an end to contributions from the United States, but he did not care.

When Douglass heard O’Connell was dead, he lamented that “a great champion of freedom had fallen” and regretted that he was succeeded “by the Duffys, Mitchels, Meaghers and others – men who loved liberty for themselves and their country, but were utterly destitute of sympathy with the cause of liberty in countries other than their own”.

President Obama has pointed out that Douglass “modelled his own struggle for justice on O’Connell’s belief that change could be achieved peacefully through rule of law. The two men shared a universal desire for freedom – one that cannot be contained by language or culture or even the span of an ocean”.

Next week in Ireland, the first Black president of the USA will honour an Irish champion of freedom of whom we can all feel proud.

Barnaby ffrench


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