Historian Recounts Frederick Douglass’ Experience in Ireland During Presentation in Wheeling


Human rights advocate and fugitive slave Frederick Douglass felt like a free man for the first time when he visited Ireland in the mid-1800s, according to an Irish historian.

Christine Kinealy, a native of Ireland, spoke Tuesday at the Ohio County Public Library as part of the Lunch With Books observance of Black History Month. She discussed Douglass’ transformative four-month stay in Ireland.

A highlight of his visit was meeting Daniel O’Connell, a prominent Irish nationalist and abolitionist, she said. O’Connell had been a leader in the successful drive to abolish slavery in the British Empire in 1833.

Joining O’Connell on stage, Douglass told a crowd, “What my enslaved people need is a black O’Connell,” Kinealy said, adding, “He became the black O’Connell.”

In Ireland, Douglass was treated as an equal to white people. “I breathe and lo, the chattel becomes a man,” he said of the experience.

“Frederick Douglass never forgot Ireland. Throughout his life, he often spoke of Ireland and Daniel O’Connell,” she said, adding, “I’d like to think Ireland never forgot Frederick Douglass.”

Kinealy is the director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. In 2018, the institute opened a special exhibit, “Frederick Douglass in Ireland: The Black O’Connell.”

Douglass, who was born a slave in Maryland in 1818 and was self-educated, escaped to New York in 1838 and married a free black woman. They settled in a Quaker community and he began to attend anti-slavery meetings. In 1841, he was called upon to speak at one such meeting.

Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was “mesmerized” when he heard Douglass speak and realized the power of Douglass’ stories and experience, Kinealy said. While working for the American Anti-Slavery Society, “(Douglass) was so effective that people began to doubt that he had been a former slave,” she said.

Douglass’ narrative, published in 1845, was a best seller, but the fame put him in danger of being returned to his slave master, she said. At Garrison’s urging, Douglass sailed abroad and arrived in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 31, 1845, for what was supposed to be only a four-day visit.

After leaving Ireland in January 1846, Douglass traveled to Scotland and to England, where a group of female abolitionists in Newcastle purchased his freedom. In April 1847, he returned to America as a free man.

“Coming to Ireland helped him refine his political outlook,” Kinealy said.

Later in life, he spoke in favor of home rule for Ireland. “He was a very firm supporter of Irish independence,” she said.


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