History & Politics

On St. Patrick’s Day: Remembering Frederick Douglass’ Exile in Ireland

Leaving the U.S. in part for his own safety, the 27-year-old abolitionist traveled the Emerald Isle for four months and returned a changed man.
A young Frederick Douglass. —Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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 writing of his time in Ireland

 

On August 16, 1845, 27-year-old Frederick Douglass left Boston on a steamship for Liverpool and his eventual arrival in Dublin, Ireland, 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 ambition to become a free man—had been published to tremendous success. Selling 4,500 copies in its first three months, the best-selling autobiography 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 notoriety came with a bounty, however. Douglass’ newfound prominence sparked death threats, as well as increased the risk of his recapture and forced return to Maryland under the Fugitive Slave Act.

To avoid harm, Douglass’ friends and mentors—including William Lloyd Garrison, the Maine-born abolitionist and publisher of the antislavery newspaper The Liberator—suggested a book and speaking tour of Great Britain, where slavery had been abolished in 1833. The British Isles still maintained a strong network of anti-slavery organizations. 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 ads for slave auctions.) Reluctant initially, Douglass eventually agreed, leaving his wife and two children behind as he sailed across the Atlantic for the first time.

Douglass set off from Boston for Dublin via Liverpool on a two-week transatlantic crossing, accompanied by a white carpenter and abolitionist named James Buffum. They attempted to purchase first-class tickets, but the captain required that both men sleep in steerage because of Douglass’ race. Undaunted, Douglass went up to the deck as often as he could to talk about slavery with his fellow passengers. At one point, several Americans onboard became so agitated by Douglass’ presence that a brawl broke out and they threatened to throw him overboard.

Upon reaching Dublin, Douglass drafted a long letter to Garrison, assuring him that he was “now safe in Old Ireland, in the beautiful city of Dublin,” in spite of the best efforts of 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 book—repeatedly contrasted “Old Ireland” and “monarchial England” with the slave-owning American Republic,” writes Salve Regina University historian John Quinn, whose research expertise includes 19th-century Ireland.

The experience proved transformative for Douglass. In his follow-up memoir, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass wrote of his trip to Ireland:

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. Captured by raiders in northern Britain when he was 16 years old, Patrick had been taken across the Irish Sea by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland some 1,400 years before Douglass’ arrival. 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 convert the island to Christianity. In the process, he became one of the earliest identifiable anti-slavery writers on record in western civilization.

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 win the right of Catholics to sit in parliament. (Irish independence from Great 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, who Douglass praised as a captivating speaker and leader, repeatedly condemned slavery in the United States, castigating the institution as “a blot on their democracy.”

Douglass’ intended four-day tour in Ireland burgeoned into a four-month stay and dozens of speeches. During his visit, Douglass delivered lectures on slavery, emphasizing its anti-Christian nature, as well as temperance, in Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, Youghal, Limerick, Celbridge, Bangor, Lisburn, and Belfast. He drew parallels between Irish oppression and the suffering, enslavement, and persecution of Blacks in America, while also making the distinction that Irish oppression and Black enslavement were not on par as evils.

Frederick Douglass in Ireland in the 1880s. —Courtesy of Luke C. Dillon via Wikimedia Commons

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 strong contrast with American attitudes toward African Americans. It is no small irony that Douglass’ great success in Ireland contrasted to his often abusive reception specifically by Irish Americans at home, many of whom saw free Blacks as competition for jobs. Meanwhile, in Ireland, he consistently drew large crowds. “I saw no one that seemed to be shocked or disturbed by my dark presence,” Douglass would later write. “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 the “very pleasing expression of countenance.”

Over three weeks in Cork, Douglass gave a series of well-attended public lectures—including one at the Cork City Courthouse where he was introduced to Fr. Theobald Mathew, a well-known temperance advocate. The two issues often went hand-in-hand in the 19th-century, along with women’s suffrage, which Douglass also supported.

“What’s interesting about Douglass’ visit to Cork was that the Cork economy at the time was quite connected to the slave trade,” Donal Hasset, a professor at the 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 centre 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 Frederick Douglass and Cork Abolitionists Trail to highlight links to his visit 177 years ago. Cork’s Imperial Hotel, for example, served as the setting for Douglass’ “American Prejudice Against Color” speech on Oct. 23, 1845.

“There is nothing slavery dislikes half so much as the light,” he 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.”

After touring Scotland in 1846, and then Wales and England, Douglass finally sailed home in April 1847 after his freedom had been purchased from Baltimore slaveowner Hugh Auld by a British group of women abolitionists.

While in Ireland, Douglass witnessed dire poverty, worse than he’d heard about before arriving, and yet nowhere near the epic scale to come during The Great Famine, which lasted through the early 1850s. Ireland’s potato crop failure and subsequent mass starvation and disease 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.

In 1887, Douglass returned to Ireland with his second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, as Baltimore labor historian Bill Barry noted in a presentation to The Irish Railroad Workers Museum last year.

Douglass escaped slavery from Baltimore’s docks, close to where this Fells Point sculpture now sits, in 1838. —Sarah Cassie

“His friends from four decades past were dead, but he stayed with several of their children,” Barry said. “His visit coincided with the Home Rule Irish independence political movement.”

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.” 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 Words, a collection of his speeches, he continued by reminiscing on his first time in 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.