The Irish Abolitionist:
Daniel O’Connell

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

By Christine Kinealy, Contributor

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.”

O’CONNELL, Daniel. Irish National Leader, called “The Liberator.” Autograph Quotation Signed, five lines of verse on a 3 x 4.5 inch card, dated February 1, 1836.

“We tread the lands that bore us

Her green flag glitters o’er us

The friends we have tried

are by our side

The foe we hate before us.”

The above portrait was shared by Paul Hill from his personal collection.

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.”

This article was originally published in the August / September 2011 issue of Irish America. ♦

20 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!

        • Kristeen Anderson says:

          Indentured servants and slaves are two entirely different terms and impacts on a people. I.S. will gain their freedom and be able to improve they’re economic condition and gain rights as a human. Slaves are not considered human and can never gain their freedom.

          I’ve heard tell the “black” Irish originally were protestants, as in a Protestant settler in Ireland at the time of the Cromwellian Settlement of 1652. Were Cromwell’s men were the original black Irish?

          Catholics were originally banned from the USofA and it’s major cities.

          Irish prisoners had the ability to rise out of the ranks of African slaves, if they survived working the plantations. Yes the Irish have survived genocide, oppression and degradation inflicted on them by the British, but so have Africans and in the USofA generations of slaves being treated less than human puts their experiences nearer to that of the Native American genocide and torture. Both actions, inflicted by the US, has destroyed entire cultures.The Irish survived genocide and oppression and then allowed their culture to twist and come into alignment with their colonial oppressors. The argument regarding which cultures have received worse treatment on a humanitarian level is counter productive to ending oppression. The Irish have always had the ability to pass as a white protestant British person, once they lost their accent, language, style of clothing and religion they became invisible in the sea of whiteness, albeit soulless and having betrayed their lineage…

          Irish Americans and their descendants have a responsibility to end slavery, oppression, apartheid, and choose human rights for all so they can heal the past, the present, for future generations.

          • Lance says:

            The document I posted earlier from USA discounting the notion that there were Irish slaves was wrong. After considerable research, there is great documentation noting the Irish Protestants who arrived in Caribbean and American colonies were indeed slaves who were auctioned, sold and forced to work along with captured Africans. George Washington himself documents in his diaries the purchase of Irish slaves.

      • 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.

    • Mary says:

      The Irish Catholics were sold into slavery.


  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.

  4. Cindy Anderson says:

    There is an effort afoot to wipe out the history of the oppression of the Irish in the UK and US and the Caribbean islands. My late grandmother grew up in NY City in the early 1900s. She was Irish and told me as a child about signs in businesses that said “No Irish” and ” Irish need not apply”. Imagine my shock when revisionists are claiming it is untrue. My grandmother was a very honest and religious Catholic and did not lie.
    And a quote from a man who lived at the time….Archibald Rowan who referred to a “brisk trade for Irish slaves” in the mid 1800s. And I have seen bounty ads in newspapers in the 1700s when doing family geneaology that had equal penalties for runaway slaves and indentured servants which were horrific. This revisionism is scarey.

    • Kristeen Anderson says:

      Cindy please step out of your biases and read varied perspectives before making these claims. The Irish have been treated poorly, the landowners in Ireland, Britain, the Americas were for the most part horrible abusers of human rights, destroyed many lives and families of all ethnicities through out the globe. What O’Connell was saying was due to those facts how could anyone of Irish blood every support slavery! And if you chose to not speak out, vote against slavery you are part of the problem in allowing slavery to be utilized to gain wealth. There is no reason ever to support or allow slavery to be permitted. If your family chose to support or utilize slavery when they came to the USofA they were aligning with the current power structure because the current power structure (British) allowed them to be considered a useful tool in keeping their own power. And If you want to go down the generalized slavery path and forgetting historical abuses… women the world over of any race and ethnicity have been stolen, sold, forced into slavery for thousands of years and that honey continues to this day, hiding behind so called “christian morality” claiming women deserve it!

  5. Cian Molloy says:

    That is a very limited definition of Catholic emancipation! It was much more than being able to sit in parliament: it had to do with the right to own an inherit property, the right to vote, the right to establish a school or send children abroad to be educated, the right to advance in the civil service and the military, the right to become a solicitor, barrister or judge, the right to be the guardian of an orphan, and, of course, the right to practice religion. Famously, a Catholic was not allowed own a horse worth 5 pounds or more, so if you had a very valuable stallion or mare, a Protestant neighbour could take it from you and only have to give you a giver in compensation. Catholics also had to pay tithes to an alien church, the Anglican/Episcopalian Church of Ireland.

  6. Dabiha says:

    I am a descent of the “stolen ones” enslaved and oppressed from initial European contact with Africa until today. All who see any living with systemic inequity today and care bring the privilege you have to today’s race infused gaps in humanity. So being White, being Black, being Indigenous or Immigrant or refugee or unhoused have elements of division. Irish Americans are now integrated as White. Can we agree on that? If so let’s move the debate forward. I would align indentured with share croppers. Why are Irish no longer oppressed? Whatever the reason assure this is leveraged for others who are still moving toward justice. Remember going backward to againism may not have a governor attached. Just saying.

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