Obama in Ireland I:In the footsteps of Douglass

Air Force One will touch down in Dublin, Ireland on Monday morning next, May 23rd 2011, carrying the President of the United States of America. Not for the first time has a President of the United States landed on this island. Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Bush have all paid us visits.

Barack Obama’s interest in Ireland was a political one long before we or even he, heard of his familial ties to this country.

Frederick Douglass c 1860. Library of Congress.

One of the people greatly admired by Mr.Obama and often quoted by him during his presidential campaign was the anti-slavery campaigner, statesman and orator, Frederick Douglass. Douglass was an African-American escaped slave who had written his autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and toured the lecture circuit in the northern states of America.  In fear of recapture, he went to Europe to gain support for the anti slavery cause and arrived in Ireland in 1845.  In September 1845 he met Daniel O’Connell.

Daniel O'Connell, Champion of Liberty. Library of Congress.

Daniel O’Connell, ‘The Liberator’ was a lawyer who fought for the rights of the Irish who had been oppressed and ruled by the British for hundreds of years. He was vehemently opposed to violence and was committed to change by democratic means. As a skillful orator he attracted huge crowds to rallies across Ireland. He was known for his commitment to and support for many disenfranchised groups, including the slaves in the United States of America as well as Jews who did not have a vote at that time. He said “My political creed is short and simple.  It consists in believing that all men are entitled to civil and religious liberty.”

The 70-year-old O’Connell and the 27-year-old Douglass became firm friends. Douglass was deeply impressed by the oratorical skills of Daniel O’Connell and wrote in ‘Life and Times’,(the third version of his autobiography),’Eloquence came down upon the vast assembly like a summer thunder shower on a dusty road”.

Douglass was inspired and influenced both by O’Connell and by his time in Ireland. While in Dublin he wrote a new preface to his original work that demonstrated a new self-confidence as well as a deepening of his interest in human rights,  and added further dimension to his arguments for social change in his own country.

The story of Daniel O ‘Connell (1775 – 1847) and Frederick Douglass is told in the exhibition ‘Daniel O’Connell, The Man Who Discovered Ireland’ at Glasnevin Museum, which runs until December 2011.


Clare County Library – Daniel O’Connell accessed here.

Ferreira Patricia J. 2001 Frederick Douglass in Ireland:the Dublin edition of his Narrative, New Hibernia Review, Vol 5, Number 1, Spring 2001. Project Muse Referenced here.

Daniel O’Connell’s influence on Frederick Douglass accessed at About.Com

Glasnevin Cemetery Museum


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Filed under Ireland, Irish American, Irish History, Social Change, Social Justice, Suffrage

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