Frederick Douglass’ Irish sojourn: A bracing look at his encounters with poverty and prejudice across the Atlantic

Visiting on the eve of the Irish famine, the great leader stayed silent on British oppression. A new book tells why

Published December 30, 2014 11:58AM (EST)

Frederick Douglass    (Wikimedia)
Frederick Douglass (Wikimedia)

Frederick Douglass’ four-month Irish sojourn – he traveled to Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast in 1845, part of a two-year stay in the United Kingdom – has long fascinated historians and others who care about human rights. Douglass crossed paths with the great Irish “Liberator,” Daniel O’Connell, a champion of his own people and also an abolitionist, who the younger leader praised as a mentor and an inspiration throughout most of his life. He flourished in Ireland, where he was seen as a man, not “chattel.” Mixing with intellectual elites, he – and they – realized that the auto-didact and former slave could more than hold his own. A statue of Douglass stands proudly in Cork’s University College today.

“I can truly say,” he wrote to his abolitionist ally (and sometimes antagonist) William Lloyd Garrison, “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.”

Yet comparatively little is known about what Douglass thought and felt about the most pressing Irish issues of that time – the fight to repeal the Act of Union with Great Britain, which had stripped the native Irish Catholic majority of many rights, and the gathering storm of the catastrophic potato famine. In the years around his visit, famine or its attendant diseases killed at least a million Irish and sent two million more fleeing the country. The potato blight was only a rumor and a worry when Douglass visited Ireland in 1845, but it was a crisis by the time he left England in 1847 to return to the U.S. How could such a towering human rights figure remain silent on the catastrophe, as it seemed he had?

Until now, the best attempt to flesh out Douglass’ Irish sojourn came last year in “Transatlantic,” Colum McCann’s wonderful novel about real and imagined historic encounters between Irish and Americans. One affecting segment breathes life into Douglass’s time in Cork, albeit fictionally (though based on archival research.) McCann probed the abolitionist’s pained encounters with Irish poverty, as well as his close friendship with wealthy Irish abolitionist Isabel Jennings and her family. But the novelist didn’t venture to imagine how Douglass squared the kindness of his wealthy Protestant hosts with the misery of the country’s majority-Catholic population.

Now historian Tom Chaffin has filled in some of those blanks – and he’s done much more – with a new book, “Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary.” A vivid social and intellectual history of Douglass’s Irish, Scottish and British travels, and of their influence throughout his life, Chaffin wrestles with the great leader’s relative silence about the famine and Irish Catholic oppression -- and with the fact that when he wasn't silent, Douglass tended to blame their problems on drunkenness and general Catholic backwardness.

“Giant’s Causeway” – it takes its title from Douglass’s description of his wide Irish wandering, “from the hills of Howth to the Giant’s Causeway, and from the Giant’s Causeway to Cape Clear” -- is clear-eyed and sympathetic, showing the way Douglass walked the tightrope of Irish sectarianism as he stayed understandably focused on the cause of building support for abolitionism. He comes across as sensible and pragmatic; proud and prickly, a warm-hearted friend and an imposing enemy.

Douglass’s reservations about Irish Catholics seem to have been one part Protestant moral and intellectual elitism, and two parts justifiable anger the role of Irish Catholic immigrants to the U.S. in supporting slavery in the south, and blocking the progress of free blacks in the north. The book gives a vivid sense of the restraints on Douglass during his Irish sojourn and afterward, despite his nominal “freedom.” You come away clear about why he chose the course he did on the Irish question, even if you wish it had been different.


In today’s parlance, this might sound like the ultimate version of white-centered discourse, to take a revered figure from African American history and ask what he thought about the struggles of a white ethnic group. Yet Douglass deserves no less. He saw himself as, and he was, a leader of a global human rights movement. “I am for fair play for the Irishman, the negro, the Chinaman, and or all men of whatever country or clime, and for allowing them to work out their own destiny without outside interference,” he wrote. He fought for women’s rights, and later in his life supported Irish independence. But for much of his career he had doubts about the case for blaming Irish poverty and misery on the British.

Some of his reservations came from the reaction of American Irish Catholics to Daniel O’Connell efforts to get them to join the anti-slavery movement. In 1841, O’Connell signed an "Address from the People of Ireland to their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America," a spirited call to join the movement of Garrison and Douglass ultimately signed by 60,000 Irish men and women. "America is cursed by slavery!” it read. “JOIN WITH THE ABOLITIONISTS EVERYWHERE! They are the only consistent advocates of liberty….CLING BY THE ABOLITIONISTS."

American Irish leaders rejected the address almost immediately, out of racism and self-interest, as well as a justifiable suspicion of American abolitionists, who tended to be elite evangelical Protestants with grave doubts about the fitness of Irish Catholics for American democracy. The Beechers and the Tappans, Wendell Phillips and Elijah Lovejoy; many of the renowned names of abolitionist history were also associated with ugly anti-Irish Catholic biases over the years.

O’Connell himself knew this, but fervently supported the anti-slavery cause anyway, though he told Irish American supporters that perhaps there was a need for "an Irish Address in reverse:" an "Address to the Abolitionists" that would ask them to "cooperate in the spread of Christian charity with the Irishmen and Catholics in America, and obtain their assistance."

There’s no evidence Douglass knew much about this intra-Irish squabbling. He embraced the Irish Catholic O’Connell with gratitude and respect. “I feel grateful to him, for his voice has made American slavery shake to its centre,” he said in one speech. “I am determined wherever I go, and whatever position I may fill, to speak with grateful emotions of Mr. O’Connell’s labors.” Ironically, that meant early in his travels, when Douglass slipped off the Irish sectarian tightrope, it was by seeming to favor O’Connell, and by implication, Catholics, over Protestants.

Chaffin shows that Douglass was careful, even when he shared a platform with O’Connell at Conciliation Hall in his visit to Cork, to avoid taking sides on the issue of repealing the Act of Union, O’Connell’s primary cause. Introduced by the Liberator himself as “the black O’Connell,” Douglass averred that “he would not be expected to speak of Repeal as a political question,” according to a newspaper report at the time.

But in a few early speeches, when Douglass called out the hypocrisy of Protestant sects like Presbyterians and Methodists for tolerating or even abetting slavery in the U.S., he noted that Catholics “showed they felt more sympathy for the slave than did the other sects” – a point he would not make later in his life.  Likewise Catholic churches in the U.S. didn’t have segregated “black pews,” he observed, as most Protestant churches did.

The strategic Douglass soon realized he was alienating some of his audience with his apparent tilt toward O’Connell and the Catholics. While he never backed away from thanking O’Connell personally, even in hostile Protestant Belfast, he was careful not to mention his cause, or the plight of native Irish Catholics in their own country -- either in his speeches in Ireland or in most of his later work.

Some of that reticence came from his own deep doubts that Britain to blame for the troubles of the Irish. Douglass was, frankly, an Anglophile, partly because the United Kingdom had abolished slavery in 1833, and partly out of his love for its culture (born Frederick Bailey, he took the name Douglass from Sir Walter Scott’s  “Lady of the Lake.”) The former slave was aware of the irony of moving from “American republican slavery, to monarchical liberty,” but made no apologies for enjoying that liberty.  He also talked about wanting to visit “the land of my paternal ancestors.”

But once he got to Ireland, he had to admit that though he’d thought the plight of native Catholics had been exaggerated -- in part designed to embarrass Britain and morally discredit it as a foe of slavery -- he found the poverty and misery worse than he had imagined. “I must confess, my experience has convinced me the half has not been told,” he wrote in a letter Garrison published in The Liberator, his abolitionist journal.

Douglass was haunted by “streets almost literally alive with beggars” and women with “infants in their arms, whose emaciated forms, sunken eyes and pallid cheeks, told too plainly that they had nursed still they had nursed in vain.” And he saw kinship between black slaves and the poorest of the Irish Catholic poor. “These people lacked only a black skin and wooly hair, to complete their likeness to the plantation Negro,” he wrote. Yet Douglass identified only one common reason for the plight of American blacks, both slaves and freedmen, and Irish Catholics: Not political oppression, but drunkenness.

On one level, that made sense: The famous abolitionist had gotten his start in public life as a temperance crusader, lecturing in New Bedford’s Zion Methodist Church about the evils of alcohol. In Ireland, Chaffin shows, his closest local ally was not O’Connell, whom he only met once, but the renowned international temperance crusader Father Theobold Matthew of Cork, who had gotten tens of thousands of Irish to take the “pledge” of abstinence. Douglass met and lectured many times with the Irish temperance champion.

That’s partly why, in his famous letter to Garrison about the misery of the Irish on the eve of the famine, Douglass blamed not British oppression but alcohol:

The immediate, and it may be the main cause of the extreme poverty and beggary in Ireland, is intemperance. This may be seen in the fact that most beggars drink whiskey…Drunkenness is still rife in Ireland. The temperance cause has done much—is doing much—but there is much more to do, and, as yet, comparatively few to do it.

But to be fair, he had said similar things about free blacks in the North who, “through the influence of intemperance, [had] done much to retard the progress of the anti-slavery movement…Notwithstanding my efforts, and those of others, intemperance stalks abroad among the colored people of my country.”

If Douglass’s views on Irish intemperance are easy to accept, given his activism, his ideas about Catholicism are less so. An Anglophile of vaguely Protestant (but mostly unaffiliated) religious leanings, Douglass was capable of a rigid anti-Catholicism that was common in the abolitionist movement, Chaffin found.  The author may, in fact, soft-pedal that prejudice. Essays in “Liberating Sojourn: Frederick Douglass and Transatlantic Reform” trace Douglass’s crusade against “the slavery of Romanism,” through his publication “The Douglass Monthly” and other work, and they feature much more cringe-making examples of Douglass’s anti-Catholic prejudice than found in “Giant’s Causeway.”

Chaffin notes that for a new Irish version of his “Narrative,” Douglass sought and won an endorsement from a rabidly anti-Catholic Irish Protestant minister. In his later work he described watching a procession of Catholic novitiates in Rome, saddened “that they are being trained to defend dogmas and superstitions contrary to the progress and enlightenment of the age.” And while it pained Douglass that the Ireland in which he thrived was a country where so many people were suffering, for reasons of religion, culture and self-preservation, he couldn’t indict the ruling elites who welcomed him for their oppression of the Catholic majority. “He often mistook hospitalities accorded him as a guest among white, middle and upper class reformers as evidence of a more general societal egalitarianism,” Chaffin writes.

Oddly, in the years after his Irish trip, he wrote and spoke of O’Connell less than later in his career, rarely mentioning him in his publications and leaving him entirely out of his second memoir, “My Freedom and My Bondage,” though the Liberator is mentioned in later books. “Douglass’s silence on O’Connell during those years likely resulted from frictions between African Americans and Irish Americans, as well as Douglass’s reluctance to risk antagonizing British abolitionists – including British subscribers,” Chaffin wrote. Those years certainly saw an escalation in tensions between black people and Irish Americans, culminating in the awful New York City Draft Riots of 1863.

Yet later in life, Douglass would return often to the work of O’Connell, and even endorsed the cause of Irish independence, becoming an advocate for Charles Stuart Parnell’s Home Rule movement. After the Civil War, he would also use the Irish example to argue against ongoing anti-black discrimination, pointing out how it had created both a moral and an economic blight for England:

No people on the face of the earth have been more relentlessly persecuted and oppressed on account of race and religion, than the Irish people. But in Ireland, persecution has at last reached a point where it reacts terribly upon her persecutors. England today is reaping the bitter consequences of her own injustice and oppression…. Fellow citizens! We want no Black Ireland in America.

Of course, one could argue that we in fact have what Douglass would have called a “Black Ireland in America,” given the persistence of poverty and oppression for African Americans. It would probably not be surprising for the abolitionist to discover that some of the loudest voices denying the persistence of racism belong to guys named O’Reilly and Hannity and Lynch.

Douglass’s deep ambivalence about the Irish – loving O’Connell, despising many of his countrymen on this soil – is part of a larger story about fissures of race and class that thwart progressive politics 150 years later. The failure of O’Connell’s pro-abolition Irish Address represented a tragic missed opportunity to ally the country’s two most oppressed groups, rather than see them fight one another. That missed opportunity is central to whiteness studies tomes indicting the Irish for stepping on blacks as they “became white,” which I wrote about in my own book, wishing for a history like Chaffin's.

But the failure of Douglass to perceive that British and American oppression and prejudice, not just Catholicism and drunkenness, were implicated in Irish poverty -- both in Ireland and the U.S. -- was also a missed opportunity. The class and cultural prejudices of abolitionists helped create lingering political fissures as well, especially with the white working class. Just as Chaffin’s sympathetic portrait makes it seem unreasonable to expect Douglass to have taken on another divisive cause in addition to abolition, some may also seek to understand why despised Irish immigrants regrettably opposed black freedom. It’s a painful, poorly understood history that haunts us to this day.

By Joan Walsh