A mural of Frederick Douglass in West Belfast, Belfast, United Kingdom, is shown.
Parades and feasts in cities around the country are set for Saturday’s celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. And while wearing green and shamrocks are practices more familiar to whites and people of Irish decent, there was also a prominent African-American abolitionist who was greatly impacted by the Irish.
When Frederick Douglass placed himself in exile in 1845, he went abroad for two years, spending about three to four months in Ireland. He had written a narrative of his life as a slave, and he feared for his safety. In Ireland, Douglass traveled around the country speaking to crowds and developing relationships with Irishmen who opposed slavery and would support him upon his return to the states.
Today, in Rochester, N.Y., where Douglass spent about 25 years of his life, St. John Fisher College will hold a conference launching its new Irish Studies Department, and Douglass’ life will be the topic of one of the presentations.
“Our library has some original copies of the newspapers Douglass produced in Rochester upon his return,” Dr. Timothy P. Madigan, an assistant professor at St. John Fisher College and director of the institution’s new Irish Studies Program, told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “I’m no scholar on Frederick Douglass, but the more I learn about him, the more fascinated I am and the more I want to know.”
Douglass, a well-spoken orator who challenged the conditions of slavery, is still popular among visitors to his home site in Washington, D.C., said Kamal McClarin, curator at Cedar Hill. Each year, thousands of people – school children, teachers, scholars and more – make their way to Douglass’ home.
Some of the visitors are aware of Douglass’ Irish experience; others are not, said McClarin. He has studied Douglass in-depth and is proud to share information about the abolitionist, author and journalist who also was an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln.
“Frederick Douglass’ time in Ireland had a tremendous impact on his life and his work here,” McClarin told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
“In Ireland, he saw the plight of the Irish at a time when the Great Famine was ,” he said. “At the time Douglass was there, I guess you could say the Irish were like the white Negroes of Europe. Many were impressed just by seeing an African-American of his stature traveling.”
In England, Douglass developed friendships with people who had worked toward the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, according to McClarin. In places such as Dublin, Ireland, he spoke to crowds at public gatherings about poor working conditions, the temperance movement and about slavery. All along the way, he was raising money to help with the abolitionist movement in America.
While in Ireland, Douglass met Daniel O’Connell, often called The Liberator or The Emancipator. O’Connell would inspire and encourage Douglass in his work.
Ireland was a place where Douglass spoke and was accepted, Madigan said. “He was not judged there by the color of his skin. He was accepted as a man.”
In his quest for information on Ireland and Douglass, Madigan has developed professional relationships with professors and researchers at University College Cork in Ireland, he said. He wants to host a conference in the future that will focus solely Douglass and his Irish experience.
Just in case you were wondering why St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in the first place, it celebrates the life of St. Patrick, who died March 17, 493 and is most prominently associated with bring Christianity to Ireland.
According to Irish myth, shamrocks are important because St. Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the holy trinity to the Irish.