Wellness Wednesday: Frederick Douglas, the Emerald Isle, and Supporting Irish Black Owned Businesses

GrĂ¡inne Hand Assistant Director


February 15, 2022

Ireland and the United States have a strong interwoven relationship. The famine of 1845-1852 forced over a million Irish nationals to emigrate to escape the destructive nature of poverty and starvation. Many emigrees settled in the United States where their legacies are still documented and felt in modern day. In my time on the Isle nearly all the Irish natives I’ve met have told me stories of their cousins and great-grandparents and grand uncles/aunts in America.

Yet it wasn’t just the Irish that came to the United States in search of opportunity in the 19th century. Some African Americans escaping the horrors of chattel slavery came to Europe during this period for a reprieve from the specific oppression Blacks faced in the United States. Most notably in 1845, Frederick Douglas, writer, orator, staunch abolitionist, and former slave, came to what he affectionately called the ‘Emerald Isle” after publishing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, his first of three autobiographies. After receiving critical acclaim in the United States, some of his supporters began to encourage him to travel to escape possible retaliation and recapture.

Douglas spent four months residing in Ireland before traveling on to the UK and he recalls in a letter to William Lloyd Garrison (American abolitionist) that “instead of the bright blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man.” For the first time Douglas is treated like man instead of a slave. While many European countries practiced slavery on their colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, slavery on the mainland was largely abolished and racial segregation much less institutionalised, contributing to a very different experience for those that travelled from lands where they were previously enslaved. This transformative experience emboldens Douglas’s goals to turn the abolitionist cause into an international one.

During his time in Ireland, Douglas met Daniel O’Connell, often referred to as “The Liberator”. O’Connell spearheaded the Irish nationalist cause to remove the restrictions placed on the majority catholic population and succeeded in doing so in 1832. O’Connell was also a staunch abolitionist for the eradication of slavery globally. Douglas was largely influenced by O’Connell’s speeches which further supported his own realization that abolition must be pursued everywhere if one hoped to create a truly free and equal world.

In honor of Black history month in the United States, we write this tribute to the piece of Irish-African American history that took place 20 years before US slave emancipation. Additionally, opportunity and equality still remain central to plight of those in the Black and or African diaspora whose cultures and histories are marred by the legacy of global Imperialism. While recognizing the progress that we have made in the past, we must continue to push for equity among all in our present and future.

The founder of Irish Black Owned, established in 2020, is recognizing the diaspora in their Instagram account and website that catalogues and promotes Irish Black owned businesses. With over 450 businesses in their directory, their mission is “to educate, empower and highlight black owned businesses in Ireland”. Additionally, they also highlight tips, webinars, and educational platforms for applications and tools to enhance entrepreneurship. Especially in a European context, the recognition of those in the diaspora helps us to remember that the fight for freedom and equity is a global one deserving of our attention year round.

Follow @irishblackowned for more enriching black owned recommendations across industries throughout Ireland

Frederick Douglas letter to Garrison Excerpt

Frederick Douglas and Daniel O’Connell