Douglass in Ireland: A shared legacy of rebellion


In a celebration of cross-cultural solidarity, the Commodore Barry Club is set to screen "Frederick Douglass and the White Negro," a documentary that delves into the deep connections between Frederick Douglass, the renowned African American abolitionist, and the Irish people. The event is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 25, with doors opening at 4 p.m. and the film starting at 4:30 p.m. Suggested donation is $5.

The film follows Douglass’ life from enslavement as a young man through to his travel to Ireland in 1845, where he befriended Daniel O’Connell, famous at the time in America for his support of the anti-slavery movement as he fought for Catholic emancipation in Ireland. 

Fleeing the threat of recapture in the United States after the publication of his groundbreaking autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," Douglass arrived in Ireland just as the country was on the verge of the Great Famine. He toured the country, spreading the message of abolition. 

What he saw and experienced during his four months there had a profound impact on the young American. He experienced an unprecedented level of freedom and respect on his journey across Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Belfast, where he was celebrated for his eloquent lectures – prompting him to write to his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, that "I can truly say, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life."

During his trip, Douglass began to understand not only the possibilities of liberty and freedom, but also see the promise of “a society not steeped in race,” said Tonya Thames-Taylor, an associate professor of history at West Chester University who serves as an executive committee of the Frederick Douglass Institute. 

Douglass also felt tremendous empathy for the Irish, who were suffering the devastating effects of the Great Famine while simultaneously fighting against British colonialism. He wrote of seeing white people in what he considered to be a worse state than his fellow African Americans back in the United States, and he became a “bridge” between the two marginalized groups, Thames-Taylor said.

Douglass raised enough money in Ireland that he was able to buy his freedom in the U.S., return to his wife and children and even had enough left over to start his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. He was also deeply inspired by O'Connell's passionate advocacy for human rights, and a philosophy of nonviolent resistance that would later shape Douglass’ approach to the abolitionist movement in the United States.

Howard Zinn, a historian and author, praised the documentary for providing "a refreshingly original look at a largely unknown part of [Douglass's] life. The film reveals long-obscured pieces of history, offering fascinating insights into the relationships between Irish and African Americans, especially in the context of the American Civil War and the New York Draft Riot in 1863…” That year, the relationship between the two groups took a deadly turn when bands of largely Irish rioters, angry over the war draft that allowed wealthy people to buy their way out of conscription, turned their ire toward Black workers who they feared would take their jobs, Thames-Taylor said. More than 120 African Americans were killed and the riot resulted in over $2 million in property damage. 

But Thames-Taylor says the underlying causes of the riot were about something other than race. Workers’ fears of losing their livelihoods were ”fanned by the media to see Black people as competition,” Thames-Taylor said, “but it was really [about] a threat to the meager life that they had. On the surface, it looks like its race, but it was really about a scarcity of resources.”

The film shows on Sunday, Feb. 25. Doors open at 4 p.m., film starts at 4:30 p.m. $5 suggested donation.