Douglass and O'Connell: An Unlikely Friendship: Background information when reading TransAtlantic

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TransAtlantic

A Novel

by Colum McCann

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann X
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2013, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2014, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Beyond the Book:
Douglass and O'Connell: An Unlikely Friendship

Print Review

One of the historical events that frames TransAtlantic is Frederick Douglass's visit to Ireland. Douglass was an escaped slave and later became a champion abolitionist. In late 1845, he visited Ireland as part of a two-year lecture tour through Ireland, Scotland and England. Douglass had escaped seven years earlier and had published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. As Douglass traveled through Ireland, through Belfast, Cork and Dublin, he was greeted enthusiastically.

Daniel O'ConnellIt was in Ireland that he met Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847), who brought an important Catholic voice to the Irish opposition to slavery. Even though the two shared the stage only very briefly, during a September 1845 rally in Dublin, the meeting would serve as inspiration for Douglass who is said to have remarked that O'Connell's "voice made American slavery shake to its center." That visit helped Douglass frame the contagion of slavery against a larger point of reference, as a global struggle for equality. It is important to note that slaves shipped to English colonies were not solely from Africa, many Irish were enslaved and shipped to the New World as well.

Douglass proved to be popular in Ireland despite his fascination for all things English - including their style of clothing and English authors such as Charles Dickens. Interestingly enough, when Douglass visited Ireland, the potato famine was just beginning to take root and over many subsequent years, would drive millions to migrate to the United States. Douglass's warm reception in Ireland by Irish nationalists, especially, stands in contrast to the attitudes of Irish Americans back home who weren't very sympathetic to the cause of slavery eradication*.

Frederick DouglassO'Connell died less than two years after Douglass's visit. Arguably his greatest impact on Douglass would be his belief in Ireland's destiny as part of Great Britain, where rule of law rather than revolution would prevail. Douglass translated this vision to the United States believing that a continued union between the North and the South would lead to the greatest chance at emancipation from slavery. Until then, Douglass's mentor, William Llyod Garrison had brought up the possibility of the North possibly opting out of the union if the slave states of the South did not want to abolish slavery. But O'Connell's influence encouraged Douglass to pursue policies of emancipation while keeping the union intact.

When President Barack Obama visited Ireland a few years ago, he reflected on the historic partnership:

"Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and our great abolitionist, forged an unlikely friendship...with [Ireland's] great liberator, Daniel O'Connell. His time [in Ireland], Frederick Douglass said, defined him not as a color but as a man. And it strengthened the non-violent campaign he would return [to America] to wage.

For his part, Douglass drew inspiration from the Irishman's courage and intelligence, ultimately modeling his own struggle for justice on O'Connell's belief that change could be achieved peacefully through rule of law ... the two men shared a universal desire for freedom - one that cannot be contained by language or culture or even the span of an ocean."

These days, the Frederick Douglass/Daniel O'Connell project with offices in Ireland and Washington D.C. honors the memories of these two men and works to strengthen the voices of African and Irish diaspora in the United States as well as fight injustice around the world. A statue of Frederick Douglass, nearly nine feet tall, is on display at the Helix Theater in Dublin City University.


*According to BookBrowse visitor Carol Goonan who, critical of our interpretation of events, wrote to us in June 2014: "Over 150,000 Irish immigrants fought in the Union army as volunteers. One Irish regiment sustained 41 losses at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Reasons for the lack of involvement of Irish immigrants in the Abolition movement prior to the war can be found in the fact that the movement was largely Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, and anti-Catholic. Additionally the movement was intrinsically bound up with the Temperance movement, a cause antithetical to the Irish (and German) immigrants. Lastly, Northern employers used Black labor as strikebreakers in an effort to control Irish laborers' demands for better pay and working conditions."

Article by Poornima Apte

This article was originally published in June 2013, and has been updated for the May 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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