In 1845, the American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) visited Ireland, forging a lasting friendship with our great liberator, Daniel O’Connell. His time here, Douglass said, defined him "not as a colour but as a man."
In 1845, he published a memoir of his life as an American slave (which placed him at risk of recapture) and fled to the UK, spending several months campaigning in Ireland. Douglass spoke at events in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Wexford, Waterford, Belfast, and more bearing witness to the suffering of the Great Hunger as it began to unfold.
When Frederick Douglass was about 12 years old, two Irishmen working with him in a shipyard advised his to 'run away to the north' (although it would be eight years later, when he was 20, before Douglass managed to escape). In 1845, Douglass published his famous autobiography, "The Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave". The resulting publicity put him in danger of capture, so he was persuaded to travel to Ireland (and from there to Britain) for safety.
While in Ireland, Douglass wrote: "One of the most pleasing features of my visit, thus far, has been a total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me, on account of my colour. The change of circumstances in this is particularly striking... I find myself not treated as a color, but as a man – not as a thing."
DOUGLASS IN IRELAND TIMELINE (to discover the local story of each visit, click on the link)
- Aug 31, 1845 Frederick Douglass arrives in Dublin
- Sep 29, 1845 Douglass hears Daniel O'Connel speak in Dublin and "was immediately entranced"
- Oct 07, 1845 Frederick Douglass speaks in Wexford
- Oct 09, 1845 Frederick Douglass speaks in Waterford
- Oct 11, 1845 Frederick Douglass speaks in Cork
- Nov 21, 1845 Frederick Douglass speaks in Limerick
- Dec 05, 1845 Frederick Douglass speaks in Belfast
- Jan 1, 1846 "I can truly say, 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." [Frederick Douglass to William Lloyd Garrison. Belfast, 1 January 1846].
- Jan 10, 1846 Douglass leaves Ireland for Scotland
- Jun 16, 1846 Douglass returns to Belfast
- Jul 25, 1846 Douglass leaves Ireland for London
- Oct 10, 1846 Douglass returns to Belfast
In 1847, Frederick Douglass returned to the US (just a month before Daniel O'Connell died). It would be 40 years before Douglass returned to Ireland for one last time to speak in favour of Irish Home Rule in 1887.
Back in the US, Douglass had a long and distinguished career as a writer, speaker, civil rights campaigner, presidential adviser and diplomat. He was also the first-ever African-American to visit the White House (at the request of Abraham Lincoln). He died in Washington DC on 20th February 1895 and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York, the city which had been his home for 25 years.
In 2020, the Embassy of Ireland in the US partnered with organisations across Ireland and the United States to mark the 175th anniversary of Douglass’s visit and to reflect on his enduring legacy.
Although these events are now passed, some of the content is still available online.
- A virtual tour of Dublin in Douglass’s footsteps with Professor Christine Kinealy & actor Eoin Grey, part of Ireland’s #CultureNight
- ‘‘Frederick Douglass & Ireland’’: a conversation about history, solidarity, & racial justice in Ireland and the US, featuring some of America’s foremost black history & Douglass scholars, and hosted by the African-American Irish Diaspora Network & Georgetown University, on 29 September, the anniversary of Douglass’s first meeting with Daniel O’Connell
- ‘‘Douglass in Ireland: An Exhibition’’: on 29 September, a new exhibition on Douglass’s visit to Ireland will open at the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI)
- ‘‘The Frederick Douglass Project’’: on 22 October, the creative team behind Solas Nua’s award-winning production The Frederick Douglass Project come together to discuss how they translated Douglass’s time in Ireland to the stage
- ‘‘Douglass in Ireland: A Symposium’’: On 13 November, Princeton University’s 2020-21 Fund for Irish Studies series presents a symposium on Douglass’s tour of Ireland, including Colum McCann, author of TransAtlantic, and Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies Autumn Womack
- ‘‘Douglass Week’’: From 8 - 14 February 2021, academics at University College Cork are planning a range of events to celebrate the anniversary of Douglass visit to Ireland’s southern capital