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Frederick Douglass Alamy Stock Photo

Donal Fallon During his time in Ireland, Frederick Douglass was captivated by Daniel O'Connell

As a new statue of slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass is unveiled in Belfast, the historian reflects on Douglass’ love for Ireland.

ANTI-SLAVERY ACTIVISM in Belfast predated the birth of Frederick Douglass. In the days of the Society of United Irishmen, the founding fathers of Irish republicanism, members of the society hosted the former slave Olaudah Equiano on an Irish speaking tour in 1791.

Equiano recorded Belfast as the city where he found the people most hospitable, lodging with the United Irishman Samuel Neilson. Neilson’s newspaper, the Northern Star, was fundamentally opposed to slavery wherever it existed.

frederick-douglass-american-social-reformer-orator-writer-and-statesman Frederick Douglass, American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The United Irishmen in Belfast greatly hampered the efforts of local merchants to prosper from the misery of others in distant places and maintained a progressive internationalism that impressed Equiano and other visitors to the thriving city. On Bastille Day 1792, a banner denouncing slavery was amongst the political expressions carried through the streets of Belfast.


Undoubtedly though, the later Frederick Douglass is the most widely recognised abolitionist to have visited Irish shores. His 1845 speaking tour is commemorated with plaques in Wexford, Waterford, Limerick, Cork and Dublin.

waterford-republic-of-ireland-august-14th-2018-a-blue-plaque-on-the-exterior-of-city-hall-in-the-city-of-waterford-marking-the-location-where-ame Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Now, a statue of the social reformer has been unveiled in the heart of Belfast city, the work of Scottish figurative sculptors Alan Beattie Herriot and Hector Guest. Like Equiano, Douglass received a warm welcome in the city, telling one audience that ‘wherever else I find myself to be a stranger, I will remember I have a home in Belfast.’

The visit of Douglass to Ireland was evoked by Colum McCann’s 2013 novel TransAtlantic and was central to Barack Obama’s 2011 speech on Dublin’s College Green, which focused in no small part on the mutual political respect between Douglass and Daniel O’Connell.

daniel-oconnell-speaking-at-a-meeting-in-trim-county-meath-ireland-doc-irish-political-leader-campaigned-for-catholic Douglass was captivated by Daniel O'Connell. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The work of historians (in particular Christine Kinealy, who gathered many of the surviving speeches and reports of the Douglass visit and others) had done much in examining the sometimes surprising intersections of Ireland and the abolitionist cause, but that 2011 speech was a catalyst for much wider engagement with the story of Douglass in Ireland. Obama told the crowd how ‘Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and our great abolitionist, forged an unlikely friendship right here in Dublin with your great liberator, Daniel O’Connell.’

left-to-right-livingstone-thompson-chair-of-the-african-and-caribbean-support-organisation-northern-ireland-rt-hon-the-lord-mayor-of-belfast-councillor-ryan-murphy-and-tukura-makoni-policy-off Livingstone Thompson, Chair of the African and Caribbean Support Organisation Northern Ireland, Rt. Hon. The Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Ryan Murphy and Tukura Makoni, Policy Officer at African and Caribbean Support Organisation Northern Ireland during the unveiling of the statue of anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass in Belfast. Picture date: Monday July 31, 2023. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

On hearing O’Connell speak in Dublin in September 1845, Douglass wrote that ‘I have heard many speakers within the last four years – speakers of the first order, but I confess, I have never heard one by whom I was more completely captivated than by Mr O’Connell.’

‘Rise up’

Sharing a stage with the Irish parliamentarian, he told an audience that ‘the poor trampled slave of Carolina had heard the name of the Liberator with joy and hope, and he himself had heard the wish that some black O’Connell would yet rise up among his countrymen.’

O’Connell’s passionate denunciation of slavery, and his participation in the World Anti Slavery Convention of 1840, had won the admiration of many American abolitionists.

Members of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society, established in the 1830s, were instrumental in organising the Douglass visit. Many of its members, such as the Dublin Quakers Richard Allen and Richard D. Webb, were active in a wide variety of social reform campaigns, leading some to mockingly call them ‘the Anti-Everythingarians.’

Webb was centrally important in having an Irish edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave printed. One of the finest denunciations of slavery, it is also the dramatic story of escape: ‘I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.’

narrative-of-the-life-of-frederick-douglass Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass - Image ID: 2G7HE70 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Douglass arrived in Dublin on 31 August 1845. Of his first impressions here, he would write of how ‘instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man.’

Still, the poverty that confronted Douglass in the Irish capital surprised him, writing that ‘the streets were almost literally alive with beggars, displaying the greatest wretchedness.’

Touring Ireland, Douglass was captivated by the Temperance movement and the crusade of Father Theobald Matthew, taking ‘the pledge’ and writing in a letter that ‘the temperance cause has done much—is doing much—but there is much more to do, and, as yet, comparatively few to do it.’

frederick-douglass-with-the-commissioners-to-santo-domingo-brooklyn-navy-yard-january-1871-unknown-maker-american-january-1871-albumen-silver-print Frederick Douglass with The Commissioners to Santo Domingo, Brooklyn Navy Yard, January 1871, Unknown maker, American, January 1871 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

A Frederick Douglass lecture involved more than just verbal condemnation of a violent and oppressive system as historian Laurence Fenton notes, Douglass was ‘well versed in the art of capturing an audience’s attention’. He would produce whips, manacles and other instruments of torture, ‘rattling them before the gasp filled hall. Douglass had carried them across the Atlantic packed away perhaps in the same suitcase as his shirts and trousers. they would certainly have made an interesting sight for an inquisitive customs official.’

Honoured by Belfast

This new statue of Douglass stands near the Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church, a venue where Douglass spoke several times during his speaking tour and was reportedly ‘received with loud plaudits.’

There, he asked the Belfast audience to consider that ‘the Creator had given the slave moral and intellectual faculties, and religious aspirations; but the slaveholder stepped in and forbade their exercise. Now, the question which he had more particularly to consider was, did the Book of God sanction such an atrocious system?’

As Douglass prepared to leave Ireland for Scotland, he wrote to his fellow abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, that ‘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.’

tourists-browses-international-wall-murals-in-the-republican-falls-road-area-of-west-belfast-northern-ireland-this-mural-featu Tourist browses International wall murals in the republican falls road area of west belfast Northern Ireland. This mural features american slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass who visited Ireland and was inspired by them Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The memory of the welcome extended to him in Ireland never left him, nor did his admiration for Daniel O’Connell. Decades later, speaking at a Home Rule meeting in the United States, he reflected on his 1845 visit to Ireland and Daniel O’Connell:

‘I once travelled through it from the Hill of Howth to the Giant’s Causeway… I know something of the Irish heart… I heard something of the breadth and comprehensiveness of the Irish heart from that great and good man and I am, therefore with every other American, of whatever colour or class, an out-and-out Home Ruler for Ireland and an out-and-out Home Ruler for every man in this Republic.’

Donal Fallon is a historian and the presenter of the Three Castles Burning podcast.