Arts

Ex-slave and human rights champion Frederick Douglass's links to Belfast

A former slave who was to become an influential writer and hold several public offices, Frederick Douglass was one of the most prominent abolitionists of 19th century America. A talk at the upcoming West Belfast Festival, Feile an Phobail, will highlight his association with Ireland, writes Noel McAdam

Frederick Douglass is the subject of a talk by historian Prof Christine Kinealy at St Mary's College on August 6 as part of Féile an Phobail
Noel McAdam

IT WAS during his time in Ireland, including repeated trips to Belfast, that a runaway American slave captured the vision which would transform him into an international icon.

In contrast to the chicanery and spin of modern American administrations, Frederick Douglass became a champion of universal human rights and a beacon for oppressed peoples over the almost 200 years since.

And both his legacy and the story of how he found his feet in the cities of Ireland forms part of the west Belfast féile next month.

Professor Christine Kinealy, who is the worldwide expert on Douglass, is giving a lecture in the city which he appears to have visited more than any other on the island.

Douglass himself lectured not just in Belfast but in Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Wexford between October and December 1846.

But he was back in Belfast the following June, and again in July before returning a fourth time in October of that year with the prominent American slavery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Prof Kineally, who won an Emmy for her part in a television documentary on the Great Hunger in Ireland, said it was during Douglass's time in Ireland that "he became a 'man'" and consolidated his view that "the struggle of black slaves was part of a wider struggle for social justice".

"His experiences in 1845 provided a prism through which he could view suffering and oppression everywhere, and articulate the demand for universal human rights. This approach remained pivotal to his subsequent political activities."

In a later letter to Garrison, Douglass said it was during his time in Ireland that he came to realise "the cause of humanity is one the world over. He who really and truly feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart to the woes of others."

After 1847 it would be 40 years before Douglass was in Ireland for one last time, in 1887, by which time he was speaking in favour of Irish Home Rule.

In her address at St Mary's College on August 6 (3pm), Prof Kinealy will outline the steps that led to Douglass arriving in Ireland where he would have one landmark meeting with Daniel O'Connell.

Douglass's father was a white man, possibly the owner of the plantation in Maryland where he was born in 1818 and where he was separated from his mother but taught to read by the wife of another white 'master' – even though teaching slaves to read was illegal.

He was about 12 when two Irishmen working with him in a shipyard advised his to 'run away to the north' although it would be eight years later, when he was 20, before Douglass managed to escape.

"Even when resident in the northern states of America he would be in danger of being returned to slavery. Regardless, he did not hide from public view, giving lectures that provided a powerful personal testimony of the horrors of slavery with passion and eloquence," Prof Kinealy said.

But it was not until 1845 that Douglass published his famous autobiography, The Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.

"The resulting publicity put him in danger of capture, so he was persuaded to travel to Ireland and, from there, to Britain for safety," Prof Kinealy said

While in Ireland, however, Douglass wrote: "One of the most pleasing features of my visit, thus far, has been a total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me, on account of my colour. The change of circumstances in this is particularly striking... I find myself not treated as a color, but as a man – not as a thing."

Prof Kinealy, a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin who has also worked in research in Belfast, was named in 2011 by Irish America magazine as one of the most influential Irish Americans and, three years later, became inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame.

In an essay on the historic meeting between Douglass and O'Connell, who would bestow on him the title the 'black O'Connell', prof Kinealy wrote that "the real significance of the praise is what it reveals about Douglass's appeal to black people to take responsibility for their own liberation".

Writing himself about his own lectures in Belfast and elsewhere, Douglass stated: "I saw no-one that seemed to shocked or disturbed at my dark presence. No-one seemed to feel himself contaminated by contact with me."

The former US president, Barack Obama admitted the influence of Douglass on his own thinking and acknowledged the role O'Connell had played, in a speech in 2011.

"Douglass drew inspiration from the Irishman's courage and intelligence, ultimately modelling his own struggle for justice on O'Connell's belief that change could be achieved peacefully through rule of law," Obama said.

Prof Kinealy, who is now director of the Ireland's Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, concluded in the essay: "Douglass's brief time in Ireland transformed him into a fearless champion of international human rights, whose legacy continues to inspire today."

FÉILE AN PHOBAIL

:: It is now by far the biggest and longest annual community festival across Ireland.

Concerts, comedy, street theatre, park parties, sports and children's events stand side by side with a range of debates, discussions and exhibitions, along with drama events and readings.

:: Féile an Phobail, the festival of the people, runs from August 2 to 12. Highlights include concerts by Olly Murs in Falls Park on August 11 and Cara Dillon at Clonard Monastery on August 6, with The Wolfe Tones returning to the Falls Park on the final night in their 55th year on the road.

:: Jake O'Kane tops the comedy bill while family events include a Teddy Bears Picnic, with some people wondering whether Gerry Adams will bring his own (Sunday 5th), and the Party in the Park for everyone on Saturday 11th in the Falls Park.

:: More at feilebelfast.com

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