The Irish Abolitionist:
Daniel O’Connell

Daniel O'Connell, The Liberator
Daniel O'Connell, The Liberator / Photo by Courtesy of the Library of Congress

By Christine Kinealy, Contributor
August / September 2011

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 slaves 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.”

8 Responses to “The Irish Abolitionist:
Daniel O’Connell”

  1. Lar says:

    I got a lot of information for my history project thanks, but did you find any thing on irish slavery.

    • Peter James says:

      There was no Irish Slavery. That’s a trope used by racists to minimise the impact of actual slavery in the US & Caribbean.

      • Mary says:

        Peter James is wrong; and his comment is very ignorant and racist–the Irish Catholics were subjected to racism and discrimination for 800 years by the British. Racism, unless you are an uneducated American, is about tribal hatred and power, not color–just look at Rwanda or Serbia Croatia or any number of genocides among people of the same color–the Holocaust being the height of the evil hatred of racism.
        The records are in Jamaica. Ask any Rastafarian. St. Kitts is building a monument to Irish Slavery.
        The Irish Catholics were sold into slavery.
        Records show that the vast majority of the first wave were in fact Irish men and women, some of whom were indentured labourers, but the majority of whom were slaves.

        And how did they reach Barbados? For that we have to thank Oliver Cromwell who in 1648 put down a rebellion in Ireland with such savagery and cruelty that his name is still burned into the Irish psyche today. In his own words, after the siege of Drogheda.

        Cromwell’s son, Henry was made Major General in command of his forces in Ireland and it was under his reign that hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women were shipped to the West Indies.
        From 1648 – 1655 over 12,000 Irish political prisoners were shipped to Barbados. Although indentured servants (Irish included) have been coming to Barbados since 1627, this new wave of arrivals were the first to come involuntarily. The Irish prisoners made up for a serious labour shortage caused by English Planters, lack of access to African slaves. The Dutch and Portuguese dominated the slave trade in the early 17th century, and most white land owners in Barbados and the neighbouring islands were unable to purchase slaves of African origin.

        A Jesuit priest Father J.J. Williams , in his 1932 book ‘ The Black Irish of Jamaica’ details chapter and verse the subsequent shipments from Barbados and direct from ‘The Auld Sod’ . The last shipment appears to have been in 1841 from Limerick , aboard the “SS Robert Kerr”, a voyage that took seven weeks. The “Kingston Gleaner” noted that “they landed in Kingston wearing their best clothes and temperance medals”..meaning, believe it or not, that they did not drink alcohol!

      • Jordan says:

        No, Mary. You’re the one spreading misinformation.

        The Irish were never slaves in the Americas. They were indentured servants. There is a difference.

        Slave women’s children inherited their mothers’ status automatically; servants’ children did not. Servants could testify in court; slaves could not. Slaves were bought and sold at auctions; servants’ contracts of service could merely exchange hands. But most importantly, servants were legally persons, with some basic rights that came with personhood. Slaves were legally property in the same way a cow or a donkey is.

        Furthermore, Irish historian Liam Hogan collected dozens of signatures from fellow Irish historians in an open letter criticizing three Irish newspapers (using dubious sources) for sharing stories about an Irish slave trade in the Americas that simply did not exist.
        https://medium.com/@Limerick1914/open-letter-to-irish-central-irish-examiner-and-scientific-american-about-their-irish-slaves-3f6cf23b8d7f#.wdsiaqv5i

    • Mary says:

      The Irish Catholics were sold into slavery.

      http://www.ballinagree.freeservers.com/jamaica.html

  2. O’Connell befriended abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (America’s First Suffragist) at the 1840 London Anti-Slavery Convention and he spoke publicly against the convention forcing women delegates to be seated in the balcony behind a curtain. She wrote of his support for women’s rights and how much she admired and influenced her thinking during their conversations in London.

  3. George Dillon says:

    Too bad the article completely ignores the work of another Irishman in the fight against slavery, work that was probably more substantial than O’Connell’s rhetoric. I refer to Richard Madden, who in the 1830s fought slavery in places like Cuba and Jamaica, and played a part in the Amistad trial in the US.

Leave a Reply




Share



More Articles

Rodney Charman’s painting “The Odessa.”
Connecticut’s Coffin Ship Art Exhibit

Aseries of art pieces portraying the struggle for survival aboard the “coffin ships” on which 1.5 million Irish...

More

Lizzie Helmer. (Photo: Facebook)
Californian Student Discovers Cork Link

A Californian student attending University College Cork had a prominent role in the centenary commemoration of the...

More

Sculptor Michael Keropian’s clay mold of the bust of  Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher that will be  unveiled at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery July 1. (Photo: keropiansculpture.com)
Meagher’s Memorial, Late,
But Not Forgotten

When General Thomas Francis Meagher died, he never received a formal memorial. An Irish revolutionary turned exile,...

More

Col. Thomas J. Kelly and the memorial plaque at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
IRB Leader and Civil War Vet Remembered

The 150th anniversary commemoration of Colonel Thomas J. Kelly and the Manchester Martyrs was celebrated at the...

More