The news that President Obama will honor Daniel O’Connell, the Irish patriot and creator of Catholic emancipation in 1829, completes an extraordinary circle in Irish and American life.
The Irish Times has reported that Obama is likely to visit the tomb of O’Connell in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetry to pay tribute to him during his visit to Ireland on May 23rd.
Obama has singled out O’Connell because, almost alone among Irish and British leaders of his era, he condemned slavery.
By so doing Obama will elevate O’Connell from his current place in Irish history where he has been forgotten to some extent for his remarkable and non violent approach to Irish freedom.
He was also hugely influential in helping Fredrick Douglass, one of Obama’s heroes, when the escaped slave fled to Ireland in 1845 to escape from slave catchers.
O’Connell felt so strongly about slavery that he refused the support of over 20 pro-slavery members of parliament when they approached him and offered to help win Catholic emancipation and repeal of the Act of Union in return for supporting their efforts to keep slavery in the West Indies.
Here are extracts from speeches of O’Connell.
“I am an Abolitionist. I am for speedy, immediate abolition. I care not what caste, creed, or color, slavery may assume. Whether it be personal or political, mental or corporeal, intellectual or spiritual, I am for its total, its instant abolition. I enter into no compromise with slavery. I am for justice, in the name of humanity, and according to the law of the living God…..My soul object is to rouse the attention of England and Europe to all that is cruel, criminal, and in every sense of the word, infamous, in the system of negro slavery in North America. … no American slaveholder ought to be received on a footing of equality by any of the civilized inhabitants of Europe.”
Douglass for his part was captivated by O’Connell and his principled stand against slavery. “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 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.
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”.
Such is the man Obama will rightfully honor in Dublin next month, uncovering a hidden chapter of Irish and American history that resonates through the ages more than ever today.