The intersectionality of Black and Irish Struggles

By Nadine Finch

Statue of Frederick Douglass by sculptor Andrew Edwards. It depicts F.D. when he was in Ireland, aged 27, and wearing Daniel O’Connell’s cloak and Abraham Lincoln’s waistcoat. In his left hand, Douglass is holding his “Narrative.” The statue is located in College Park, at the University of Maryland.


Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in around 1818 and remained enslaved in Maryland until he escaped to New York, and then New Bedford, in 1838. He attended and spoke at an Anti-Slavery Convention in Nantucket in 1841 and, as a result of his oratory and analysis, he became a spokesperson for the Anti-Slavery Movement. In May 1845 his memoir, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, was published. This rendered him at far greater risk of being hunted down and recaptured by his “master” under the Fugitive Slave Act 1793. Therefore, he travelled to Liverpool in August 1845 and stayed there for two days before travelling on to meet Richard Watts, a Quaker and his prospective publisher in Dublin.

Frederick Douglass was already a great admirer of Daniel O’Connell, who had spoken out strongly in favour of the abolition of slavery. Daniel O’Connell had also been instrumental in the campaign which resulted in the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 and by 1841 he was campaigning for the repeal of the Act of Union of 1801, which had merged the parliament of Ireland with that of Great Britain.

Daniel O’Connell’s support for the abolition of slavery dated back to his time as a lawyer and his meeting with James Cropper, an evangelical abolitionist from Liverpool, in 1824. Later that year Daniel O’Connell spoke at a meeting of abolitionists in England and put his own humanitarian stamp on the anti-slavery debate and demanded that slavery be abolished immediately. In addition, unlike many Protestant evangelicals, he did not believe that slaves needed to be converted to Christianity but believed that they could not achieve their potential until they were emancipated.

From 1829, he agitated in parliament for the end of slavery in the British Empire. A group of other MPs offered to support him on Irish issues if he stopped agitating for the abolition of slavery. He replied: “Gentlemen, God knows that I speak for the saddest people the sun sees, but may my right hand forget its cunning and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth before, to help Ireland, I keep silent on the “negro” question”.

When slavery in the British Empire was abolished in 1833, Daniel O’Connell continued to campaign against the compensation being offered to slave owners and the substitution of slavery with “apprenticeships”.

Daniel O’Connell’s condemnation of slavery in America and his refusal in 1839 to recognise the American ambassador on the grounds that he was a “slave-breeder” were also very unpopular with a number of people both sides of the Atlantic but, when Frederick Douglass was in Ireland many years later, he recalled that: “I heard my master curse him, and therefore I loved him. Mr. O’Connell tore off the mask of hypocrisy from the slave-holders, and branded them the vilest of the vile, and the most execrable of the execrable, for no man can put words together stronger than Mr. O’Connell”.

Portrait of Daniel O’Connell

On 29 August 1845 Frederick Douglass went to hear Daniel O’Connell speak at a rally in Dublin and at the end of the rally Daniel O’Connell invited Frederick Douglass up to address the meeting. Of the speech made by Daniel O’Connell, Frederick Douglass later wrote to William Lloyd Garrison, the American abolitionist:

“Upon the subject of slavery in general and American slavery in particular, Mr. O’Connell grew warm and energetic, defending his course on this subject. He said, with an earnestness which I shall never forget, “I have been assailed for attacking the American institution, as it is called,—“Negro” slavery. I am not ashamed of that attack. I do not shrink from it. I am the advocate of civil and religious liberty, all over the globe, and wherever tyranny exists, I am the foe of the tyrant; wherever oppression shows itself, I am the foe of the oppressor; wherever slavery rears its head, I am the enemy of the system, or the institution, call it by what name you will.

I am the friend of liberty in every clime, class and color. My sympathy with distress is not confined within the narrow bounds of my own green island. No—it extends itself to every corner of the earth. My heart walks abroad, and wherever the miserable are to be succored, or the slave to be set free, there my spirit is at home, and I delight to dwell.”

This is thought to be the only time that the two men met and Daniel O’Connell died in Genoa in May 1847.

Frederick Douglass remained in Ireland until January 1846. His visit coincided with the start of An Gorta Mor (“The Great Hunger”) and, through his travels around the island, he became aware of the situation of the majority of its inhabitants. In a letter written to William Lloyd Garrison, he later noted that he saw: “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 only feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart of 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”. 

However, he was careful to distinguish between the situation of a slave and that of those oppressed in Ireland, stating that: “The Irishman is poor, but he is not a slave. He may be in rags, but he is not a slave. He is still master of his own body…The Irishman has not only the liberty to emigrate from his country, but he has liberty at home. He can work, and speak, and co-operate for the attainment of his rights and the redress of his wrongs”.

But he also said that his time in Ireland had been one of the happiest in his life as he had found himself “not treated as a color but as a man – not as a thing”,

Frederick Douglass returned to the United States in April 1847, after spending some months in Scotland and England, with a much wider understanding of the need for social and economic reform. He set up his own publication The North Star and also became a supporter of emancipation for women; attending the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848  and being one of the few men and the only black man to sign the Declaration of Sentiments. 

Frederick Douglass returned to Ireland in 1886 after Charles Stewart Parnell had introduced the Government of Ireland Bill (more popularly known as the First Home Rule Bill) in the Westminster parliament in April 1886. In America, African-Americans were divided about supporting Home Rule in Ireland but, in 1886, Frederick Douglass wrote to the Boston Pilot stating that “he had “never allowed the unfriendly attitude of Irish men in this country toward “colored” people to dim my vision as to the just rights of Irishmen at home.”

In 1882, Frederick Douglass also published an 18-page article, entitled Thoughts and Recollections on Ireland. He concluded the article by stating that he: “favored ‘Home Rule’ for Ireland for two reasons: First, because Ireland wants ‘Home Rule’, and Secondly, because it will free England from the charge of continued oppression of Ireland…I am for fair play for the Irishman, the “negro”, the Chinaman, and for all men of whatever country or clime, and for allowing them to work out their own destiny without outside interference”.

In December 1887 Frederick Douglass also spoke at a meeting in support of Irish independence in Washington attended by 20,000 people. He was the only black person on the panel and said that: ‘More than forty years ago I had the pleasure and the privilege of standing on the banks of the Liffey, side by side with the great Daniel O’Connell and at that time I declared, before a vast audience in Conciliation Hall, my conviction of the justice, the wisdom, the necessity, and the final triumph of the repeal of the Union. I heard something of the breadth and comprehensiveness of the Irish heart from that great and good man and I am, therefore, with every other American, of whatever color or class, an out-and-out Home Ruler for Ireland and an out-and-out Home Ruler for every man in this Republic”.

Daniel O’Connell and Frederick Douglass may have only met in person once but they shared gifts of oratory and internationalist understanding and saw the intersectionality of campaigns for the abolition of slavery and the self-determination of the Irish people. 

Nadine Finch 

4 October 2020



Frederick Douglass also spoke at a number of meetings in Scotland in 1846. He was expecting the same sort of positive response as that experienced by William Garrison and others, when they spoke in Glasgow after they had attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention, which was held in London in 1840. 

However, when he arrived in Dundee, he found that the Free Church of Scotland did not welcome his views on slavery and that, in particular, the Rev. Thomas Chalmers, the Rev. George Lewis and the Free Church’s newspaper, The Northern Warder, publicly opposed him. This arose from the fact that, by this time, the Free Church of Scotland was receiving significant funding from Presbyterian churches in South Carolina, which did not oppose slavery and whose members were also slave owners. 

At his first meetings in January 1846, which were held at the School Wynd Chapel, part of the United Secession church, Frederick Douglass criticised the Free Church for taking money in order to maintain its freedom of religion from those who had benefitted from the enslavement of others. He spoke at  a number of other meetings in Scotland in the following months and was supported by many women members of congregations and also by the Dundee Courier paper but failed to change the minds of many in the Free Church, who were resistant to his calls to “send back the blood stained dollars”.

However, at a further “soiree” at the School Wynd Chapel on 10 March 1846, Frederick Douglass acted out an imaginary encounter between himself, as an enslaved child being auctioned to provide financial support for the Free Church of Scotland and the Rev. George Lewis meeting his master to fundraise for the freedom of their church. This performance turned the audience in his favour. However, although no more fundraising trips took place, it is not clear that the £3,000 previously donated was ever returned to America.  

Points of references

  1. When he returned to America from Ireland and England and Scotland in 1847, he was able to buy his freedom with donations given to him during his time there.
  2.  The Act enabled Catholics to be elected to and sit in parliament in London and primarily benefitted upper class and middle-class Catholics but it had resulted from a popular movement led by Daniel O’Connell in Ireland.
  3.  These apprenticeships were subsequently abolished in 1838.
  4.  A wide-ranging declaration of Women’s Rights in all spheres of their lives.