Frederick Douglass: The Black O’Connell

“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.”

Frederick Douglass, letter to William Lloyd Garrison, 1845


“When we strove to blot out the stain of slavery and advance the rights of man, we found common cause with your struggles against oppression. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and our great abolitionist, forged an unlikely friendship right here in Dublin with your great liberator, Daniel O’Connell. His time here, Frederick Douglass said, defined him not as a color but as a man. And it strengthened the non-violent campaign he would return home to wage.”

“For his part, Douglass drew inspiration from the Irishman’s courage and intelligence, ultimately modeling 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.”

President Barack Obama, 2011

In March 2014, a few of my collegemates and I, along with two advisors, travelled to Lurgan, Northern Ireland for spring break. No, we were not there to neither vacation nor partake in St. Patrick Day festivities. No, we went to learn of the nation’s deep religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics. We were there to facilitate conversations of reconciliation and build relationships with the students of Lurgan High School. These students (N. Irish high school=American middle schools) educated us on the conflicts and their thoughts on people who were different then themselves. Our hosts were amazing even after one of us almost killed their dog, the country’s beauty is indescribable, and the chocolate, can I talk about it, is pure and rich. I hope to visit sometime again next year:)

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I reflected on this journey two weeks ago as I sat in a lecture hosted by the National Center for Race Amity and the Museum of African American History. The center and museum invited the community to celebrate the arrival and first public viewing of Frederick Douglass’ Ireland monument. The event was followed by a film preview of the documentary An American Story: Race Amity and the Other Tradition (yet to be released) and a lecture by Don Mullan on the Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell‘s friendship. Mullan is the author of Bloody Sunday and co-founder of the Frederick Douglass Ireland Project. In addition, he spoke of Haiti, the call for France to locate and return Toussaint L’Ouverture’s body, and Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday.

As I sat in the crowd, I was amazed to learn of Douglass’ travel to Ireland and the bond both he and O’Connell shared. I was also disappointed with my lack of knowledge of this history, which is why I share this post with you today.

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Frederick Douglass, Andrew Edwards

“No matter,” said Mr. O’connell, “under what specious term it may disguise itself, slavery is still hideous. It has a natural, an inevitable tendency to brutalize every noble faculty of man. An American sailor, who was cast away on the shore of Africa, where he was kept in slavery for three years, was, at the expiration of that period, found to be imbruted and stultified—he had lost all reasoning power; and having forgotten his native language, could only utter some savage gibberish between Arabic and English, which nobody could understand, and which even he himself found difficulty in pronouncing. So much for the humanizing influence of The Domestic Institution.”

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

“Douglass had a letter of introduction from Charles Sumner, but when O’Connell’s servant announced that there was a colored man at the door, the great Irish-man rushed out and clasping Douglass in a warm embrace, said: ‘Fred Douglass, the American slave, needs no letter of introduction to me.’

Christine Kinealy

After escaping to the North, Douglass recalled a memory of O’Connell as a young slave boy on a plantation in Maryland. He stated, “I heard my master cursed him, and therefore, I loved him.” At a young age, he realized any person his master loathed was a friend to the enslaved. Indeed, Douglass was correct in his observation. Although O’Connell is known as the Liberator of Irish Catholics, he was also remembered as an abolitionist who longed for the end of slavery not only in America, but worldwide. By 1845, he was the most outspoken critic of slavery in the world. Within this same year, Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was published. This book was monumental, yet with its release Douglass’ identiy was exposed and fears heightened among abolitionist that he would be captured as a fugitive slave. Through their encouragement and his assistance, Douglass boards a ship to travel throughout England and Ireland on a speaking campaign against slavery.

It was inevitable for the two, Douglass and O’Connell, not to cross paths. While in Ireland, Douglass attended a lecture by O’Connell in Dublin, Ireland.

“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.”

Further encouraged by O’Connell’s speech, Douglass continued to travel and speak in Western Europe endlessly praising O’Connell. Through his lectures, he was coined “The Black O’Connell”. The Black O’Donnell enjoyed his time in this new land for he did not fear slave catchers and was treated as a man not a black slave. Douglass spent four months of his two year of the United Kingdom in Ireland traveling to Dublin, Limerick, Cork, and Belfast in 1845. Attending another one of O’Connell’s lectures, Douglass was introduced to the Great Liberator through a fellow friend and asked to say a few words at his event. The response from the crowd was touching. As he stayed in the country to write a preface to the Irish publication of his book, Douglass stood in awe at O’Connell’s work in the nation and vowed to equally do the same for his black brothers and sisters in America.

After two years, Douglass returned to America, the same year the Great Liberator died.

Until the next post,


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