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Daniel O'Connell defending the rights of his countrymen in the courts of Dublin, February 4, 1844. Photo by: Library of Congress

The Irish Abolitionist: Daniel O'Connell

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Daniel O'Connell defending the rights of his countrymen in the courts of Dublin, February 4, 1844. Photo by: Library of Congress

On 23 May 2011, President Obama made an historic visit to the Republic of Ireland. While in Dublin, he addressed the people in College Green. In his opening comments, Obama joked about having returned to his ancestral home “to find the [O’] apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.”

The bulk of his speech paid tribute to the long-established relationship between the United States and Ireland, with the President acknowledging America’s debt to Irish immigrants. However, he paid particular tribute to one Irishman who had never set foot on American soil, Daniel O’Connell, saying:

When we strove to blot out the stain of slavery and advance the rights of man, we found common cause with your struggles against oppression. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and our great abolitionist, forged an unlikely friendship right here in Dublin with your great liberator, Daniel O’Connell. His time here, Frederick Douglass said, defined him not as a color but as a man. And it strengthened the non-violent campaign he would return home to wage.

The President’s comments were intriguing. While  Frederick Douglass remains an icon to students of slavery, O’Connell’s role in this movement has largely been forgotten. What brought Frederick Douglass, a fugitive American slave, to Ireland? And why was Daniel O’Connell revered in the United States as a champion of anti-slavery? 

At the end of 1845, Frederick Douglass traveled to Ireland. He regarded his visit as transformative – for the first time he felt able to view himself as a man, rather than as the property of another man. The highlight of his time spent in Ireland was meeting Daniel O’Connell, the Irish ‘Liberator.’

Today, O’Connell is largely remembered for winning Catholic Emancipation (the right of Catholics to sit in parliament) and for agitating to achieve independence for Ireland. But for Douglass, and thousands of other abolitionists throughout the world, O’Connell was known for his outspoken statements condemning slavery. By 1845, the Irishman was the most influential and outspoken critic of slavery in the world. It was natural that Douglass should want to hear O’Connell speak. 

In September 1845, Douglass attended a Repeal meeting in Dublin. He was mesmerized by O’Connell’s lecture, describing it as “powerful in its logic, majestic in its rhetoric, biting in its sarcasm,
melting in its pathos, and burning in its rebukes.” Douglass believed that O’Connell was at his best when he spoke out against slavery, saying “I have heard many speakers within the last four years – speakers of the first order; but I confess, I have never heard one by whom I was more completely captivated than by Mr. O’Connell.”

When speaking in Cork a few weeks later, Douglass again praised O’Connell, telling his audience: “I feel grateful to him, for his voice has made American slavery shake to its center. I am determined wherever I go, and whatever position I may fill, to speak with grateful emotions of Mr. O’Connell’s labors.”

Douglass left Ireland at the beginning of 1846, just as the impact of the potato blight was starting to take effect in the country. His eloquence when lecturing on slavery had earned him the sobriquet ‘The Black O’Connell,’ forever linking him to the Irishman he so admired. Frederick Douglass, 27 years old, a self-educated escaped slave, and 70-year-old Daniel O’Connell, Liberator of Irish Catholics and scourge of British politicians, were unlikely bed-fellows. Together, however, their repeated and passionate attacks on the institution of slavery transformed the struggle for abolition into a transatlantic crusade for social justice. 

O’Connell’s involvement in anti-slavery had started in 1824. In the 1820s, the movement to end slavery in the British Empire was being revived in Britain. James Cropper, an evangelical abolitionist from Liverpool, visited Ireland and sought a meeting with O’Connell.  O’Connell, then a successful lawyer, had just helped to found the Catholic Association – the most successful grass-roots organization in the early nineteenth century. Despite the many claims on his time, O’Connell immediately embraced the cause of anti-slavery.

Only a few months after meeting Cropper, O’Connell was asked to speak at a meeting of abolitionists in England. His arrival coincided with the retirement, on health grounds, of William Wilberforce, the genteel, evangelical founding father of British anti-slavery. O’Connell, Catholic, controversial and rumbumptious, represented a new generation of agitators, who were willing to use popular agitation and uncompromising invective to bring an end to slavery.

From the outset, O’Connell put his own humanitarian stamp on the anti-slavery debate. Unlike some who agitated for gradual emancipation, O’Connell demanded that it be immediate. He repeatedly described black slaves as being the equals of free white men – then an unpopular view even amongst abolitionists. Moreover, unlike the British abolitionists, he did not confine his attention to slavery in the British Empire. He also condemned slavery in the United States – which he constantly referred to as ‘a blot on their democracy.’

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