Updated: Jan 25
Daniel O’Connell is remembered as the Liberator of Irish Catholics, but he also played a significant role in the movement to end slavery.
On 23 May 2011, President Obama made an historic visit to the Republic of Ireland. While in Dublin, he addressed the people in College Green. In his opening comments, Obama joked about having returned to his ancestral home “to find the [O’] apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way.”
The bulk of his speech paid tribute to the long-established relationship between the United States and Ireland, with the President acknowledging America’s debt to Irish immigrants. However, he paid particular tribute to one Irishman who had never set foot on American soil, Daniel O’Connell, saying:
"When we strove to blot out the stain of slavery and advance the rights of man, we found common cause with your struggles against oppression." Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and our great abolitionist, forged an unlikely friendship right here in Dublin with your great liberator, Daniel O’Connell. His time here, Frederick Douglass said, defined him not as a color but as a man. And it strengthened the non-violent campaign he would return home to wage.
The President’s comments were intriguing. While Frederick Douglass remains an icon to students of slavery, O’Connell’s role in this movement has largely been forgotten. What brought Frederick Douglass, a fugitive American slave, to Ireland? And why was Daniel O’Connell revered in the United States as a champion of anti-slavery?
At the end of 1845, Frederick Douglass traveled to Ireland. He regarded his visit as transformative – for the first time he felt able to view himself as a man, rather than as the property of another man. The highlight of his time spent in Ireland was meeting Daniel O’Connell, the Irish ‘Liberator.’
Today, O’Connell is largely remembered for winning Catholic Emancipation (the right of Catholics to sit in parliament) and for agitating to achieve independence for Ireland. But for Douglass, and thousands of other abolitionists throughout the world, O’Connell was known for his outspoken statements condemning slavery. By 1845, the Irishman was the most influential and outspoken critic of slavery in the world. It was natural that Douglass should want to hear O’Connell speak.
In September 1845, Douglass attended a Repeal meeting in Dublin. He was mesmerized by O’Connell’s lecture, describing it as “powerful in its logic, majestic in its rhetoric, biting in its sarcasm, melting in its pathos, and burning in its rebukes.” Douglass believed that O’Connell was at his best when he spoke out against slavery, saying “I have heard many speakers within the last four years – speakers of the first order; but I confess, I have never heard one by whom I was more completely captivated than by Mr. O’Connell.”
When speaking in Cork a few weeks later, Douglass again praised O’Connell, telling his audience: “I feel grateful to him, for his voice has made American slavery shake to its center. I am determined wherever I go, and whatever position I may fill, to speak with grateful emotions of Mr. O’Connell’s labors.”
Douglass left Ireland at the beginning of 1846, just as the impact of the potato blight was starting to take effect in the country. His eloquence when lecturing on slavery had earned him the sobriquet ‘The Black O’Connell,’ forever linking him to the Irishman he so admired. Frederick Douglass, 27 years old, a self-educated escaped slave, and 70-year-old Daniel O’Connell, Liberator of Irish Catholics and scourge of British politicians, were unlikely bed-fellows. Together, however, their repeated and passionate attacks on the institution of slavery transformed the struggle for abolition into a transatlantic crusade for social justice.
O’Connell’s involvement in anti-slavery had started in 1824. In the 1820s, the movement to end slavery in the British Empire was being revived in Britain. James Cropper, an evangelical abolitionist from Liverpool, visited Ireland and sought a meeting with O’Connell. O’Connell, then a successful lawyer, had just helped to found the Catholic Association – the most successful grass-roots organization in the early nineteenth century. Despite the many claims on his time, O’Connell immediately embraced the cause of anti-slavery.
Only a few months after meeting Cropper, O’Connell was asked to speak at a meeting of abolitionists in England. His arrival coincided with the retirement, on health grounds, of William Wilberforce, the genteel, evangelical founding father of British anti-slavery. O’Connell, Catholic, controversial and rumbumptious, represented a new generation of agitators, who were willing to use popular agitation and uncompromising invective to bring an end to slavery.
From the outset, O’Connell put his own humanitarian stamp on the anti-slavery debate. Unlike some who agitated for gradual emancipation, O’Connell demanded that it be immediate. He repeatedly described black slaves as being the equals of free white men – then an unpopular view even amongst abolitionists. Moreover, unlike the British abolitionists, he did not confine his attention to slavery in the British Empire. He also condemned slavery in the United States – which he constantly referred to as ‘a blot on their democracy.’
Finally, O’Connell brought a Catholic dimension to a movement that had, up to that time, been overwhelmingly associated with Protestant evangelicals. Unlike the evangelicals, he did not regard slaves as heathens who would benefit from being converted to Christianity, but as men and women who could not reach their potential until they were free. Overall, O’Connell brought a more inclusive and humanitarian dimension to anti-slavery agitation.
After 1829, O’Connell used his presence in the British House of Commons, and his considerable oratorical skills, to agitate for the ending of slavery in the British Empire. His arrival in the British parliament caused disquiet amongst those MPs who supported slavery. A group of them even offered O’Connell support on Irish issues in return for his silence on abolition. He responded, “Gentlemen, God knows that I speak for the saddest people the sun sees, but may my right hand forget its cunning and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth before, to help Ireland, I keep silent on the negro question.”
In 1833, the British parliament voted to end slavery in the British Empire. O’Connell’s elation was tempered by two facts: slave-owners were to be given over £20,000 in compensation, and the ending of slavery was not to be immediate, but replaced by a system of ‘apprentice-ship,’ that is, slavery by another name. O’Connell led the opposition to what he regarded as a betrayal of the slaves, and demanded of the House of Commons, “Was that what the Negro expected? Was that what the country so long sought for and expected?” O’Connell’s unrelenting campaign meant that the apprenticeship system was ended in 1838.
In 1839, O’Connell became embroiled in a controversy that attracted widespread attention on both sides of the Atlantic. O’Connell publicly refused to recognize the American Ambassador in London, Andrew Stephenson, on the grounds that he was a “slave-breeder.” Stephenson responded by challenging the 65-year-old to a duel. The duel was never fought, but the resulting dispute ran for months in the Irish, British and American newspapers. It also caused disquiet at the highest political levels. The British Foreign Office, no supporter of O’Connell, expressed concern at the venom being heaped on him by some sections of the American press. Queen Victoria, however, despaired that her Irish subject was creating an international diplomatic incident. Her apprehensions were well-founded. Henry Clay, an American, pro-slavery senator, publicly condemned O’Connell’s interference in the slavery question. In contrast, Stephenson’s behavior was criticized in the House of Congress by John Quincy Adams, himself an abolitionist.
An unexpected outcome of this controversy was that Frederick Douglass, when in Ireland a few years later, referred to this incident and explained how O’Connell’s actions had inspired him. He explained: “I heard my master curse him, and therefore I loved him. In London, Mr. O’Connell tore off the mask of hypocrisy from the slave-holders, and branded them as the vilest of the vile, and the most execrable of the execrable, for no man can put words together stronger than Mr. O’Connell.”
O’Connell’s argument with Stephenson had made him the scourge of American slave-owners but, according to Douglass, it had elevated him to the hero of American slaves. Moreover, the Stephenson controversy demonstrated that O’Connell had become a central figure in the abolition question in the United States.
In 1840, the first international Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London. O’Connell’s participation confirmed his reputation as the most influential abolitionist in the world. The Americans who attended the Convention were particularly fulsome in their praise, with William Lloyd Garrison describing O’Connell as “the most wonderful of the statesmen and orators of the age.” Another delegate, Charles Lenox Remond, a black abolitionist, was also charmed, writing that, “No nation or people possesses a superior to Daniel O’Connell.”
The success of the London Convention, but primarily O’Connell’s contributions, persuaded Remond to turn Irish support into something more permanent. Together with James Haughton and Richard Webb, two Irish Abolitionists, he composed “An Address of the People of Ireland to their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America.” The Address was signed by O’Connell, leading people to assume he was the author. It described slavery as a blot on American greatness and it appealed directly to Irish-Americans to support abolition. Members of the Hibernian Anti-slavery Society took the Address from door to door in Ireland, collecting signatures. By 1842, they had gathered over 70,000.
The Address was then taken to Boston by Remond. However, the Address caused dissent and division within the immigrant communities. Asking Irish immigrants to support the Address meant unwittingly encouraging them to criticize the American government and thus appear both ungrateful and unpatriotic. Bishop John Hughes of New York urged Irish Americans not to sign the Address on the grounds that supporting abolition would expose them to being caught between their loyalty to their country of birth and that to their adopted country.
O’Connell was disappointed at the reluctance of some of his fellow Irishmen in the United States to support abolition. In 1843, while facing imprisonment by the British government for convening a Repeal meeting at Contra, he penned an eleven page denunciation of slavery, and of those who tolerated it. His message was uncompromising and unequivocal:
"How can the generous, the charitable, the humane, and the noble emotions of the Irish heart have become extinct amongst you? How can your nature be so totally changed as that you should become the apologists and advocates of the execrable system which makes man the property of his fellow man – destroys the foundation of all moral and social virtues – condemns to ignorance, immorality and irreligion, millions of our fellow creatures…? It was not in Ireland that you learned this cruelty… Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice saying come out of such a land you Irishmen, or if you remain and dare continue to countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer!"
William Lloyd Garrison, the leading American abolitionist, said of O’Connell’s denunciation, “I do not remember anything finer from the lips of any European or American patriot.”
Until his death in 1847, O’Connell remained an outspoken proponent of immediate abolition and an advocate of treating freed slaves as the equals of white men. Even following his death, his influence continued. In the struggle for hearts and minds that preceded the American Civil War, the speeches of O’Connell were widely reprinted in the Northern states, bringing him to a new generation of abolitionists.
In 1875, centenary celebrations for O’Connell took place throughout the world. Some of the largest were located in the United States. In Boston, valedictory tributes to O’Connell were made by the three leading American abolitionists: William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillip, and John Greenleaf Whittier. They each honored O’Connell as the most important abolitionist of the age.
In Ireland and Britain, Daniel O’Connell is remembered as the Liberator of Irish Catholics, but he also played a significant role in liberating enslaved people both in the British Empire and in North America. Moreover, his inclusive, egalitarian and humanitarian approach truly made him both a friend and champion of the slave.
In the words of Frederick Douglass, “The fire of freedom was burning in his mighty heart.”