The North Star

Nora Connolly 

Image © Flickr: Mural on the Solidarity Wall

To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy licence; your national greatness swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy, a thin veil to cover up crimes to which would disgrace a nation of savages…Frederick Douglass 5th July 1852

The 50th anniversary of Dr King`s iconic speech, is a good time to reflect on the significance of the Civil Rights Movement both within but also outside the USA. In 1967 for example, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed in an attempt to address the manifest discrimination the Catholic population experienced in areas such as housing, jobs and in the gerrymandering of the political system. The Irish Civil Rights Movement clearly attempted to emulate the USA campaign but it appears a symbiotic relationship existed between the Irish and US civil rights experience long before Dr King emerged to lead the civil rights movement.  

In 1845 Frederick Augustus Douglass a leading figure in the USA Abolition movement went on a tour of Britain, a journey prompted by the publication of his biography. Douglass had been born into slavery and escaped captivity via the Underground Railroad, following as so many did before him, the North Star to freedom.  Douglass who had secretly learnt to read whilst a slave, was a formidable autodidactic, who quickly demonstrated his oratorical power, later reflected in his writing. Douglass came to the attention of William Lloyd Garrison, whose Abolitionist movement demanded the immediate repeal of Slavery. Douglass as a fugitive slave was considered the property of another and the publication of his best selling narrative history placed him in danger. He was forced to flee avoiding recapture by visiting Britain. Douglass had immense respect for Britain the home of civil liberties, as he left America he noted that he would be sailing from “American republican slavery, to monarchical liberty.” On arrival in Britain he was among friends; the British had abolished slavery in the 1830s and those who had campaigned for this outcome helped fund the anti-slavery movement in the USA.

It was during this time that Douglass visited Ireland, which was then gripped by famine, mass starvation and poverty. Douglass, who witnessed this, compared the condition of the Irish, “to that of the most degraded American Slaves”. He met Daniel O`Connell the Irish Barrister and MP who had campaigned successfully for Catholic Emancipation, a policy breakthrough which allowed him to take his seat in Westminster, where he campaigned in various forms for the Repeal of the Union. O`Connell at the time had an international reputation, in terms of his status and campaigning methods he is comparable to Dr Martin Luther King. Like King, O`Connell was a colossal figure and it illustrates some measure of the respect O`Connell had for Douglass, that he referred to the American as “the Black O`Connell”.

The campaign against slavery in Ireland predates O`Connell as Kinealy points out the movement was closely associated with those of the Protestant persuasion, indeed Douglass described Irish abolitionists as “the most ardent” in Europe. O`Connell turned to the issue with gusto in the early 1820s and by doing so he introduced the slavery issue to a mass movement whose backbone was formed from illiterate, Catholic peasants. This was significant as many Irish people would in time  depart for America. Unlike many of his compatriots O`Connell never actually visited the United States but in the course of his political life he met many Americans. Apparently, when encountering an American for the first time he asked each one, prior to shaking hands, whether or not they were a slaveholder. If the answer was yes there was no handshake. This aspect of O`Connell`s political outlook receives scant recognition in Britain or Ireland today. This is a sad omission because the Irish Liberator played a significant role in shaping the nascent civil rights movement in the USA.

Within Britain, O`Connell placed his political weight behind the abolition of slavery. He led a large group of Irish MPs – which encouraged some British MPs with financial interests in the West Indies to offer O`Connell political inducements, if he would suppress his opposition to slavery, which O`Connell refused. Indeed, once slavery was abolished in Britain he focussed on pressurising the USA to reject the policy. This brought him into direct conflict with those who supported slavery, such as Henry Clay but he was also praised by Wendell Phillips and Garrison. O`Connell died in 1847 but his influence in America grew as his anti-slavery writings were published and widely read as America crept towards Civil War.

The sad irony is that despite the significance of O`Connell in the USA many but not all – Irish Americans and their leaders opposed Douglass`s fight to gain rights for African-Americans. It`s argued that many Irish immigrants didn’t wish to compete with freed African-Americans for jobs nor did they wish to be viewed as unpatriotic. The cause of anti-slavery in America sadly did not have widespread support, often encompassing other progressive features such as women`s rights and social reform (which Douglass supported). Frederick Douglass left Britain in 1847 and returned to America, once his supporters purchased his freedom, a dishonourable contractual process, conducted whilst he was in Britain. He was a free man and in 1852 he made a statement on the subject of patriotism, when he was asked to speak in celebration of the 4th of July; his comments cited above place Irish immigrant patriotism in context. On February 20th 1895 Douglass passed away, a man born into slavery died a statesman.

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