Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race

By Bruce Nelson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
“The Black O’Connell of the United States”

FREDERICK DOUGLASS AND IRELAND

Behold the change!… Instead of a democratic government, I am
under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright blue sky of
America, I am covered with the soft grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I
breathe and lo! the chattel becomes a man.

—Frederick Douglass, January 1846

In America the slave is called a slave—he is black, and is flogged. In
Ireland he is called a labourer—he is white, and is only starved.

—Irish abolitionist Ebenezer Shackleton, 1840

UNTIL HIS DEATH IN 1847, and for a generation thereafter, O’Connell remained a revered international symbol of the antislavery movement.1 No matter how much Irish immigrants disappointed them, the Garrisonians could take ample consolation from their belief that the Liberator was the voice of Ireland.2 Indeed, for them O’Connell was Ireland; they created the green isle of their imaginations out of his stirring words and larger-than-life persona. Garrison hailed the Irish Address as a “noble gift of Ireland to America” that “strengthened] her claim to be the ‘first flower of the earth, and first gem of the sea.’” John A. Collins persuaded himself that “O’Connell and all the Irish of Ireland are abolitionists”; those who were not, Garrison argued, must be “bastard Irishmen” who “cannot have a drop of genuine Irish blood running in their veins.”3

As the antebellum era unfolded, more and more American reformers had the opportunity to visit the Emerald Isle. Among black abolitionists, in particular, the contrast between the near-pervasive racism they encountered in the United States and the warm reception they received abroad proved to be a pivotal—and, for some, a transformative—experience. Charles Lenox Remond reported that during his sojourn in England, Scotland, and Ireland, “there had been no show of disrespect, no brutal taunts, no scornful looks,” nothing to “grieve his soul” or cause him to flee in search of a more congenial environment. On the contrary, he was “hailed as a man—cherished as a brother—caressed as a friend.” Frederick Douglass recalled that on this terrain he first “breathed an atmosphere congenial to the longings of his spirit, and felt his manhood free and unrestricted.”4 Here, too, he met the great O’Connell. Douglass maintained that as a boy in Maryland,

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