Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist of 19th century America and Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, who led the fight to gain the right to vote for Irish Catholics in 19th century Ireland, have always been two of my heroes. Most Americans tend to be unaware of the connection between them.
Throughout his life Daniel O’Connell had been an opponent of slavery, and made his sentiments known at every opportunity, calling upon Irish-Americans to attack the “Peculiar Institution”. He was frequently quoted by opponents of slavery in the United States. While a boy and a slave, Douglass had heard one of his masters curse O’Connell for attacking slavery, and Douglass knew that he must love O’Connell if his master hated him so. In 1846 Douglass went to Ireland for four months and went on a speaking tour. O’ Connell was seventy-one and had just one more year to live. Douglass was a mere twenty-eight. However, a firm friendship quickly sprung up between them. O’Connell, perhaps the finest orator of a nation known for oratory, heard the eloquent Douglass speak in Dublin and proclaimed him the “Black O’Connell”.
The wretched condition of most of the Irish moved and shocked Douglass as this passage he wrote in a letter to William Lloyd Garrison on March 27, 1846 reveals:
The spectacle that affected me most, and made the most vivid impression on my mind, of the extreme poverty and wretchedness of the poor of Dublin, was the frequency with which I met little children in the street at a late hour of the night, covered with filthy rags, and seated upon cold stone steps, or in corners, leaning against brick walls, fast asleep, with none to look upon them, none to care for them. If they have parents, they have become vicious, and have abandoned them. Poor creatures! they are left without help, to find their way through a frowning world—a world that seems to regard them as intruders, and to be punished as such. God help the poor! An infidel might ask, in view of these facts, with confusing effect—Where is your religion that takes care for the poor—for the widow and fatherless—where are its votaries—what are they doing? The answer to this would be, if properly given, wasting their energies in useless debate on hollow creeds and points of doctrine, which, when settled, neither make one hair white nor black. In conversation with some who were such rigid adherents to their faith that they would scarce be seen in company with those who differed from them in any point of their creed, I have heard them quote the text in palliation of their neglect, “The poor shall not cease out of the land”! During my stay in Dublin, I took occasion to visit the huts of the poor in its vicinity—and of all places to witness human misery, ignorance, degradation, filth and wretchedness, an Irish hut is pre-eminent. It seems to be constructed to promote the very reverse of every thing like domestic comfort. If I were to describe one, it would appear about as follows: Four mud walls about six feet high, occupying a space of ground about ten feet square, covered or thatched with straw—a mud chimney at one end, reaching about a foot above the roof—without apartments or divisions of any kind—without floor, without windows, and sometimes without a chimney—a piece of pine board laid on the top of a box or an old chest— a pile of straw covered with dirty garments, which it would puzzle any one to determine the original part of any one of them—a picture representing the crucifixion of Christ, pasted on the most conspicuous place on the wall—a few broken dishes stuck up in a corner—an iron pot, or the half of an iron pot, in one corner of the chimney—a little peat in the fireplace, aggravating one occasionally with a glimpse of fire, but sending out very little heat—a man and his wife and five children, and a pig. In front of the door-way, and within a step of it, is a hole three or four feet deep, and ten or twelve feet in circumference; into this hole all the filth and dirt of the hut are put, for careful preservation. This is frequently covered with a green scum, which at times stands in bubbles, as decomposition goes on. Here you have an Irish hut or cabin, such as millions of the people of Ireland live in. And some live in worse than these. Men and women, married and single, old and young, lie down together, in much the same degradation as the American slaves. I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift up my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over. He who really and truly feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart to the woes of others; and he who thinks himself an abolitionist, yet cannot enter into the wrongs of others, has yet to find a true foundation for his anti-slavery faith.
It is a tribute both to Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell that their compassion was not limited to people like them, but extended to victims of injustice far removed from them.
In his memoirs published in 1882, Douglass recalled O’Connell:
The repeal of the union between England and Ireland was not so fortunate. It is still, under one name or another, the cherished hope and aspiration of her sons. It stands little better or stronger than it did six-and-thirty years ago (1846), when its great advocate, Daniel O’Connell, welcomed me to Ireland and to “Conciliation Hall,” and where I first had a specimen of his truly wondrous eloquence. Until I heard this man, I had thought that the story of his oratory and power was greatly exaggerated. I did not see how a man would speak to twenty or thirty-thousand people at one time, and be heard by any considerable number of them, but the mystery was solved when I saw his vast person and heard his musical voice.
His eloquence came down upon the vast assembly like a summer thunder-shower upon a dusty road. He could stir the multitude, at will, to a tempest of wrath, or reduce it to the silence with which a mother leaves the cradle side of her sleeping babe. Such tenderness – such pathos – such world-embracing love! And, on the other hand, such indignation – such fiery and thunderous denunciation, and such wit and humor, I never heard surpassed, if equaled, at home or abroad. He held Ireland within the grasp of his strong hand, and could lead it whithersoever he would, for Ireland believed in him and loved him, as she has loved and believed in no leader since.
In Dublin, when he had been absent from that city a few weeks, I saw him followed through Sackville Street by a multitude of little boys and girls, shouting in loving accents, “There goes Dan! There goes Dan!” while he looked at the ragged and shoeless crowd with the kindly air of a loving parent returning to his gleeful children. He was called “The Liberator,” and not without cause, for, though he failed to effect the repeal of the union between England and Ireland, he fought out the battle of Catholic emancipation and was clearly the friend of liberty the world over. In introducing me to an immense audience in Conciliation Hall, he playfully called me the “Black O’Connell of the United States;” nor did he let the occasion pass without his usual word of denunciation of our slave system.
O.A. Brownson had then recently become a Catholic, and taking advantage of his new Catholic audience, in Brownson’s Review, had charged O’Connell with attacking American institutions, as slavery is called: ” I am not ashamed of this attack. My sympathy is not confined to the narrow limits of my own green Ireland; my spirit walks abroad upon sea and land, and wherever there is oppression, I hate the oppressor, and wherever the tyrant rears his head, I will deal my bolts upon it; and wherever there is sorrow and suffering, there is my spirit to succour and relieve.”
No transatlantic statesman bore a testimony more marked and telling against the crime and curse of slavery, than did Daniel O’Connell. He would shake the hand of no slave-holder, nor allow himself to be introduced to one, if he knew him to be such. When the friends of repeal in the Southern States sent him money with which to carry on his work, he, with ineffable scorn, refused the bribe, and sent back what he considered the blood-stained offering, saying he would “never purchase the freedom of Ireland with the price of slaves”.