The Time A Freed Black Man Visited An Oppressed People Not His Own: Frederick Douglass in Ireland

‘Twas back in 1845 when you went across the wide Atlantic

To see for yourself what oppression in another place was like

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You were a freed Black man who put foot in a country not your own

But one for which you quickly came to have the greatest empathy for

(despite your Anglophile sympathies).

You had left America after the publication of your life’s book

And it was your friends who thought best that you tour for a time

those British Isles and learn about another race and people.

What you saw shocked you and opened your eyes to the oppression

And degradations and the hunger (physical as well as spiritual)  

And other such things that were truly universal,

and not endemic to the land that was your home.

Everywhere you went you were respectfully listened to

And more importantly, you listened and you saw.

It was the beginning of the Great Famine where people hungered for all things,

Along with food.

Though the native Irish were not “slaves” in the sense you knew it

(and truthfully, what race ever could or was, like yours?)

Yet you recognized that the native Irish wanted the freedom you got,

The kind as you say your legs gave you when your prayers did not

And you abolished your slavery on your own volition.

You traveled that green land

From north to south and from east to west

And met Everyman,

And came away enlightened.

It was in your travels in Ireland that proved the truth of what you said:

 

The soul that is within me no man can degrade.

 

What you once said about poverty and violence and ignorance

applied to Ireland then (and perhaps, with providential hindsight, to America now):

 

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and

where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to

oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.

 

 Yet, while you recognized the imperfection of man, you envisioned

 a more hopeful future when you reflected that:

 We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful

to the present and the future.    

 And:

 

If there is no struggle, there is no progress.

 

Many years later, after you visited Ireland, you never forgot the land or its people,

especially “those dear friends in Cork.”

You made friends with Daniel O’Connell, the “Irish Liberator”

and he, in turn, called you the “Black O’Connell,” for you both saw

the need for freedom in each other and bonded over that.

You noted with approval that when American Southerners sent him money for

Ireland’s freedom, Daniel O’Connell sent it back with “ineffable scorn,”

saying that he never would “purchase the freedom of Ireland with

the price of slaves.”

 

Of your time in Ireland, you said:

“I can truly say, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country.”

 

When that trip was ended, and you came back,

America—and you—would never be the same.

 

Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1817-February 20, 1895) was an American abolitionist and orator, former slave and a freed Black man. He went on a two-year journey through the British Isles after the publication in America of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave in 1845. His friends, and people sympathetic toward him, urged that he leave the country for a time because they believed his life to be endangered as a result of his book’s publication. He traveled throughout England, Ireland, and Scotland and it was Ireland that made the greatest impression upon him; his travels there were such that he never forgot the land nor its people and made him see his own country and his own race’s struggle for dignity in a new light. This meditation is presented in this month—February—on the anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ birth and death, but also in recognition of Black History Month. Next month, March, will see the celebration of Ireland—and all things Irish—on St. Patrick’s Day, when Ireland’s Patron Saint will be remembered and celebrated in parades, religious services and cultural events. History abounds in irony and the time when Frederick Douglass stepped upon Irish soil was replete with both.  There are many lessons to be learned from both the Irish experience and the African-American experience; perhaps the most notable is that the great yearning for freedom and dignity is a truly universal one and that it is not the property or aspiration of any one race or creed and that we will always need to be mindful of that truth. As he said, "I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”And when he came back from Ireland, he founded a weekly abolitionist newspaper called “The North Star” whose motto was: "Right is of no sex, Truth is of no color, God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren."

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