On August 16, 1845, 27-year-old Frederick Douglass boarded a wooden-paddle steamship in Boston, ultimately headed for England, Scotland, and Wales. But first he made a stop Dublin, landing just as the Great Famine was beginning.
A few months earlier, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in which he recounted his experience in bondage and yearning to become a free man, had been published to enormous success. Selling 4,500 copies in its first three months, the instant sensation quickly made Douglass—who had escaped slavery seven years earlier from Baltimore’s docks, where he’d worked as a ship’s caulker—the most famous Black person in America.
The high profile came with a bounty, however. Douglass’ newfound celebrity sparked death threats and raised the risk of his recapture and forced return to Maryland under the Fugitive Slave Act.
To protect Douglass, friends and mentors, including William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of the prominent antislavery newspaper The Liberator, suggested a book and speak ing tour of Great Britain, where slavery had been abolished in 1834. What’s more, the British Isles still maintained a strong coalition of anti-slavery organizations because of the United Kingdom’s commercial entanglements with slavery elsewhere around the globe.
Garrison saw Douglass’ tour as a chance to cement relationships with British abolitionists and raise the U.S. anti-slavery movement’s profile internationally. (In 1829, Garrison had come to work in Baltimore, where he served as co-editor of the abolitionist newspaper, Genius of Universal Emancipation, and called out local newspapers for accepting advertisements for slave auctions.)
Reluctant initially, Douglass eventually agreed, leaving his wife and four young children behind as he sailed across the Atlantic for the first time. Douglass set off on his two-week transatlantic crossing accompanied by a white Massachusetts carpenter and abolitionist named James Buffum. They purchased first-class tickets, but the captain required Douglass to sleep in steerage, where Buffum accompanied him.
Undaunted, Douglass ventured up to the promenade deck as often as he could to talk about slavery with his fellow passengers. At one point, several Americans onboard—“under the inspiration of slavery and brandy,” as Douglass later put it—became so agitated by his presence that a brawl broke out and they threatened to throw him overboard.
Upon reaching Dublin, Douglass wrote to Garrison, assuring him that he was “now safe in old Ireland, in the beautiful city of Dublin,” despite a tussle with a “real American, republican, democratic, Christian mob.”
During his visit, Douglass—who had vowed to free himself of his slave identity and seek self-improvement, as well as promote his autobiography—would highlight the differences between his liberty in “Old Ireland” under “monarchical England” with the barbaric treatment of enslaved Black Americans back home.
The experience overseas, in particular in Ireland, proved transformative for Douglass. In his follow-up memoir, My Bondage and My Freedom, he wrote movingly of his arrival and welcome in the Emerald Isle:
Eleven days and a half gone and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. 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. 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 . . . I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow n****** in here!’
It remains a remarkable coincidence that Douglass would join the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, as one of the best-known former slaves in all of world history.
Seized by raiders on Britain’s northern shores when he was 16 years old, Patrick had been taken across the Irish Sea and sold into slavery in Ireland some 1,400 years before Douglass’ journey. After six years in bondage, Patrick escaped after receiving what he described as a spiritual vision—two of his original writings survive—eventually returning to carry the message of God’s grace to Ireland.
In the process, he became one of the earliest identifiable anti-slavery writers on record in Western civilization. (Patrick’s short autobiography, Confessio, is considered by some the oldest surviving slave narrative.)
“SOMETIMES HE WOULD LECTURE FOR UP TO TWO HOURS… WHEN HE RETURNS TO AMERICA, HE IS VERY DIFFERENT.”
In Ireland, the young Douglass met legendary Irish freedom fighter and outspoken abolitionist Daniel O’Connell, hailed in his time as “The Liberator” of the country’s Roman Catholic majority. O’Connell is remembered today for helping Catholics win the right to sit in parliament. (Ireland’s independence from Britain wasn’t achieved until 1921.)
Unlike most abolitionists on the other side of the Atlantic, O’Connell did not limit his rebuke of slavery to the British Empire and its colonies in the West Indies, and his words had been widely read in America, including by Douglass. O’Connell, whom Douglass praised as a captivating speaker and leader, repeatedly condemned slavery in the U.S., castigating the institution as “a blot on their democracy.”
Initially, Douglass had just intended a four-day stay in Ireland to oversee the republishing of his best-selling autobiography. A Dublin abolitionist and Quaker had invited him with the idea that profits from the book could fund Douglass’ extended time in exile in England. Instead, his visit to Ireland ballooned into a four-month stay, where he delivered some 50 speeches to packed audiences around the country, as he felt truly safe for the first time in his life.
“Sometimes he would lecture for up to two hours, he never wrote anything down, he did it from memory,” historian Christine Kinealy, who transcribed a collection of his Ireland speeches, noted at a Museum of Literature Ireland event in February 2021. “Each one is different and each one is brilliant, which is remarkable for a 27-year- old, self-educated former slave.”
Douglass described the period not only as one of the happiest moments of his life, but as metamorphic.
“As you see him progress through Ireland, you see him really developing his own voice and agency. When he returns to America, he is very different,” Kinealy said. “In many ways his time in Ireland, his encounter with Daniel O’Connell and with Irish abolitionists really put him on the pathway—and [Douglass] talks about it himself—from being simply an abolitionist to being someone who cares about oppression and human rights wherever oppression exists.”
During his visits to Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, Youghal, Limerick, Celbridge, Bangor, Lisburn, and Belfast, Douglass emphasized slavery’s anti-Christian nature, calling out clergy who refused to denounce its practice. A teetotaler himself, Douglass also spoke out in favor of temperance. The two issues often went together in the 19th century, along with women’s suffrage, which Douglass also supported. He dined with the Lord Mayor of Dublin and wrote back of the natural beauty of Ireland and the generosity and kindness extended by new acquaintances.
At the same time, Douglass was also shaken and appalled by the dire living conditions of the county’s poor and drew parallels between Irish oppression and the persecution and suffering of Blacks in America. He made the careful distinction, however, that Britain’s subjugation of the Irish and the Southern plantation owners’ enslavement of Black Americans were not on par as evils.
With few railroads in the country, Douglass planned his own itinerary, traversing the notoriously windy and rainy rural hillsides and coastal mountains in a horse-and-carriage. Hostility is hardly mentioned in his writings, where he again drew a stark contrast between American and Irish attitudes toward African Americans.
It is no small irony that Douglass’ success in Ireland came on the heels of his often-abusive treatment by Irish immigrants in the U.S., many of whom saw free Blacks as competition for jobs. Not to mention, his Baltimore enslaver, Thomas Auld, was an Irish immigrant.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, he consistently drew large crowds.
“I saw no one that seemed to be shocked or disturbed by my dark presence,” Douglass wrote. “No one seemed to feel himself contaminated by contact with me.”
According to Irish newspaper accounts, Douglass proved a striking and charismatic figure during his tour. Local stories described him as “a fine-looking man, possessed of a full flow of natural eloquence.” They noted his “robust frame” and “manly dignity of manner,” as well as his “very pleasing expression of countenance.”
Over three weeks in Cork, Douglass gave a series of remarkable lectures—including one at the Cork City Courthouse where he was introduced to Fr. Theobald Mathew, a well-known abolitionist and temperance advocate.
“What’s interesting about Douglass’ visit to Cork was that the Cork economy at the time was quite connected to the slave trade,” Dónal Hassett, a professor at University College Cork, told The Irish Times. “A lot of wealth in Cork in the 18th and 19th century had come from selling provisions to slave owners in the Caribbean. At the same time, Cork was also quite a strong center of abolitionism—there were quite a number of activists in Cork campaigning for the abolition of slavery, in particular among the Quaker community, and Douglass stayed with some Quaker families while in Cork.”
Douglass, in fact, remains an inspirational figure in Cork—and Ireland, more broadly—to this day. In 2020, more than 3,000 people signed a petition asking the Cork City Council to name a street or public gathering place in honor of the abolitionist.
Last summer, Cork unveiled a 12-stop Frederick Douglass and Cork Abolitionists Trail to highlight links to his visit 178 years ago. Cork’s historic Imperial Hotel, for example, which served as the setting for Douglass’ “American Prejudice Against Color” speech on Oct. 23, 1845, is one of the highlights.
“There is nothing slavery dislikes half so much as the light,” Douglass declared that afternoon. “It is a gigantic system of inequity, that feeds and lives in darkness, and, like a tree with its roots turned to the Sun, it perishes when exposed to the light.”
Today, a street mural of Douglass adorns one of Cork’s main avenues. There is now a similar Douglass walking trail in Belfast, where his image appears in that city’s public mural of “Solidarity Wall” freedom fighters.
After touring Scotland in 1846, and then Wales and England, Douglass finally sailed back to the U.S. in April 1847, after his legal freedom had been purchased from Auld by a British group of women abolitionists. The price was 150 pounds sterling, or $771.66 in U.S. currency.
“I SAW NO ONE THAT SEEMED TO BE SHOCKED OR DISTURBED BY MY DARK PRESENCE. ”
The terrible circumstances of the Irish peasantry that Douglass witnessed was worse than anything he had heard about before arriving. Yet, it was nowhere near the horrific hunger to come during the Great Famine, which lasted through the early 1850s.
Ireland’s potato crop failure—and the British government’s laissez-faire approach to the crisis—led to mass starvation and disease that would kill an estimated one million-plus people, and send nearly another one million Irish refugees to North America on what became known as “coffin ships” because of the number of deaths aboard. In fact, poor Irish refugees would soon land on the same Fells Point docks that Douglass had escaped from.
In 1887, Douglass returned to Europe and Ireland, this time able to travel in first-class and with a passport. He said he wanted to look upon the faces of those who had looked after him 40 years earlier, as Baltimore labor historian Bill Barry noted in a presentation to The Irish Railroad Workers Museum.
“Unfortunately, his friends from four decades past were dead,” Barry said, “but he stayed with several of their children,” including in one of the same houses in Dublin. “[Interestingly], his visit coincided with the Home Rule Irish independence political movement.”
Once back home, Barry added, Douglass explained his support for their cause this way: “I am for fair play for the Irishman, the negro, the Chinaman, and for all men of whatever country or clime, and for allowing them to work out their own destiny without outside interference.”
In December 1887, only months after returning from his last visit to Ireland, Douglass attended a mass gathering in Washington, D.C., in support of Irish independence. Two Irish Home Rule members of the British Parliament attended, as did eight senators and 52 members of Congress, and some 20,000 supporters. Douglass was the final speaker and he rose to speak to “great applause,” according to contemporaneous accounts.
Douglass commenced his speech with typical humor, making fun of the fact that he was the only Black speaker present, and saying he had attended “to give color” to the proceedings.
As recounted in Frederick Douglass and Ireland: In His Own Words, Christine Kinealy’s collection of his speeches, he continued by reminiscing about his first time in Ireland and then expressing his deeply held support for the repeal of the Acts of Union that gave Britain dominion over Ireland.
More than forty years ago I had the pleasure and the privilege of standing on the banks of the Liffey, side by side with the great Daniel O’Connell, and at that time I declared, before a vast audience in Conciliation Hall, my conviction of the justice, the wisdom, the necessity, and the final triumph of the repeal of the Union. 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 color or class, an out and out Home Ruler for Ireland and an out-and-out Home Ruler for every man in this Republic.