Instead of the bright blue skies of America, I’m covered in the soft gray fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and voila! good becomes a man.—Frederick Douglass writing of his time in Ireland
On August 16, 1845, 27-year-old Frederick Douglass left Boston on a steamer for Liverpool and his eventual arrival in Dublin, Ireland, landing just as the Great Famine began. A few months earlier, Account of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave– in which he recounted his experience of servitude and his ambition to become a free man – had been published with enormous 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 the Baltimore docks, where he worked as a caulker on a ship – the most famous black person in America. Notoriety came with a premium, however. Douglass’s newfound notoriety sparked death threats, as well as an increased risk of his capture and forcible return to Maryland under the Fugitive Slave Act.
To avoid danger, Douglass’ friends and mentors, including William Lloyd Garrisonthe Maine-born abolitionist and publisher of the anti-slavery journal the liberator– suggested a book and a lecture tour of 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 relations with British abolitionists and raise the profile of the American anti-slavery movement internationally. (In 1829 Garrison had come to work in Baltimore, where he was co-editor of the abolitionist journal, Genius of universal emancipationand called local newspapers for accepting advertisements for slave auctions.) Initially reluctant, Douglass eventually agreed, leaving his wife and two children behind as he crossed the Atlantic for the first times.
Douglass left Boston for Dublin via Liverpool on a two-week transatlantic crossing, accompanied by a white carpenter and abolitionist named James Buffum. They attempted to buy first-class tickets, but the captain demanded that the two men sleep in the steerage because of Douglass’ race. Undaunted, Douglass came on deck as often as he could to discuss slavery with his fellow passengers. At one point, several Americans on board became so agitated by Douglass’ presence that a fight broke out and they threatened to throw him overboard.
Arriving in Dublin, Douglass penned a long letter to Garrison, assuring him that he was “now safe in old Ireland, in fair Dublin”, despite the best efforts of a “true American, Republican mob , Democrat and Christian”. .” During his visit, Douglass – who had sworn to break free from his slave identity and seek self-improvement, as well as promote his book – repeatedly pitted “old Ireland” against “the Monarchical England ‘to the slave-owning American Republic,’ writes historian John Quinn of Salve Regina University, whose research expertise includes 19th-century Ireland.
The experience proved transformative for Douglass. In his follow-up memoirs, My bondage and my freedomDouglass wrote of his trip to Ireland:
Eleven and a half days have passed and I have traversed three thousand miles of perilous depth. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright blue skies of America, I’m covered in the soft gray fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and voila! the piece of furniture becomes a man. I search in vain for someone who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or give me an insult. I employ a cab — I am seated next to white people — I arrive at the hotel — I enter by the same door — I am ushered into the same salon — I dine at the same table — and no one knows. ‘offended. . . I find myself considered and treated at all times with the kindness and deference granted to white people. When I go to church, I don’t have a snub nose and a scornful lip to say to myself, ‘We don’t allow niggers here!’
It remains a remarkable coincidence that Douglass joins Ireland’s patron saint, St. Patrick, as one of the most well-known former slaves in world history. Captured by raiders in northern Britain aged 16, Patrick had been taken across the Irish Sea by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland some 1,400 years before Douglass arrived. . After six years of servitude, Patrick escaped after receiving what he described as a spiritual vision – two of his original writings survive – only to eventually return 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, young Douglass met the 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 known today for helping to secure the right of Catholics to sit in parliament. (Irish independence from Britain was not achieved until 1921.) Unlike most abolitionists across the Atlantic, O’Connell did not limit his rebuke of the 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 United States, lambasting the institution as “a stain on their democracy”.
Douglass’ planned four-day tour of Ireland turned into a four-month stay and dozens of speeches. During his visit, Douglass lectured 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, slavery and persecution of blacks in America, while making the distinction that Irish oppression and black slavery were not equal as evils .