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'In 1845, Douglass had dinner with the Lord Mayor. Today he'd be put in direct provision'

Ireland’s direct provision system is a stark contrast to Frederick Douglass’ reception here, writes Donal O’Kelly.

ON THE MORNING of August 10 1845, among the passengers aboard the Cunard trans-Atlantic paddle steamer Cambria in Boston Harbour, was an escaped slave called Frederick Douglass.

He had escaped from his owner, Thomas Auld, in Baltimore Maryland in 1838. He had worked in the docks in New Bedford, Massachusetts ever since, going on speaking tours in the northern states about the system of slavery, that was central to the US economy in the south.

A slave’s autobiography comes a bestseller

On that morning in August 1845, reacting to news that his autobiography had become a celebrated bestseller, enraged slave-owners placed a price on his head, and he was forced to flee the US as a refugee. He headed for Ireland aboard The Cambria.

It was an eventful voyage. When his identity was discovered, a mob assembled by slaveholders on board tried to throw Douglass overboard. During the scuffle on deck, he was assisted by an impressively-built Irishman called Gough.

He survived to become what Abraham Lincoln called, “the most impressive man I ever met”, and the most influential African-American of the 19th century.

The Black O’Connell

Frederick Douglass could hold a crowd. His powers of oratory saw him gain a reputation in Ireland as “The Black O’Connell”, after Daniel O’Connell MP, with whom he spoke on several platforms. Douglass brought a trunk with him from which he extracted instruments of confinement and torture used daily in the southern United States, such as neck irons and shackles.

One of the stages they graced together was the Repeal Movement’s trendy new venue, The Conciliation Hall on Burgh Quay. On the site of The Conciliation Hall now stands, by an ironic twist, the Garda National Immigration Bureau.

It is, among other uses, the place where deportees are corralled before being transported to the airport for deportation.

In 1845, Frederick Douglass travelled under a false ID, Mister Frederick Johnston. If he were to arrive in Ireland nowadays this would seriously affect his chances of gaining asylum. It would be considered a lie, even though it was necessary, as is often the case, to save the refugee’s life.

He would be placed first in Balseskin Direct Provision centre near Dublin Airport, until he was sent to wherever the RIA (Reception and Integration Agency) decided. This could be any one of 30-odd centres nationwide, the vast majority run by private profit-making concerns.

Treatment of today’s asylum seekers

He would be given €19 a week for “extras” while being accommodated three-to-a-room and with rigidly-set meal times. He would be barred from third-level study. He would not be allowed to work. In Baltimore, Maryland he was at least free to work part-time at the harbour and keep some of his pay.

He would be sent a 60-page questionnaire to complete, told to get legal advice, and not given enough time to receive that legal advice. He would be warned that this may affect his assessment.

He would be called for an interview. Presumably the scars on his back from the many floggings he received would be enough evidence to gain him at least humanitarian leave to remain.

In 1845, Douglass was invited by the Lord Mayor to dine with him in the Mansion House. He is thought to have stayed with Quaker hosts in the Harold’s Cross area during his stay in Dublin in 1845.

It was a neat piece of collaborative campaigning by small Quaker anti-slavery groups and mainly Catholic supporters of O’Connell’s massive Repeal Movement that ensured he spoke to capacity attendances in Dublin, Belfast, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and elsewhere.

Ireland’s grubby, shameful strategy

My play, The Cambria, starts and finishes in Dublin Airport today, where a teacher finds that her Nigerian pupil has been summarily deported. Douglass’s time-honoured quote echoes loudly in Ireland today: “Power concedes nothing without demand; it never did, and it never will”.

Ireland’s direct provision system of asylum-seeker accommodation, and the implementation of the mis-named International Protection Act, are intended as pull-factor deterrents, a grubby shameful strategy Ireland has rigorously pursued since Charlie Haughey’s cynical EU Dublin Convention of 1990 that meant an asylum application had to be made in one’s first state of entry in the EU. Unlikely to be Ireland.

Douglass said:

I have spent some of the happiest days of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life.

It’s unlikely anyone living under direct provision while applying for asylum or humanitarian leave to remain would say the same in Ireland now.

Donal O’Kelly is a writer and actor. His play The Memory Stick has just finished its premiere run in San Jose California. He will perform in his play about Douglass, The Cambria, with Sorcha Fox in the Hospice Education Centre, Harold’s Cross at 8pm on Saturday May 13. 

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