Irish Examiner View: Statue to former slave Douglass?

Irish Examiner View: Statue to former slave Douglass?
Christopher Columbus Monument in Galway

PEOPLE Before Profit wants local authorities here to remove monuments which the party claims glorify slavery and racism. It wants a monument to Christopher Columbus in Galway to be taken down and is also seeking the removal of a plaque in Tuam, honouring Major Richard (Dick) Dowling, who served with the Confederate army in the US.

That would represent a more benign protest than destroying or toppling such monuments. Last week in Britain, protesters pulled down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and Belgian officials did the same to King Leopold II.

While the intentions behind either toppling or removing such monuments characters is undoubtedly honourable, there may be a better way. Why not erect a statue to honour the Black Lives Matter movement instead of removing one? The obvious subject of a statue would be Frederick Douglass, a former slave from the American south who came to Ireland in the middle of the 19th century and became known as The Black O’Connell, so named by his great friend Daniel O’Connell, who was a life-long opponent of slavery.

Douglass not only inspired Ireland’s Liberator but many millions during his lifetime and continues to do so today. Among his admirers is former US President Barack Obama who sees him as an iconic figure for his huge contribution to human rights in America.

During a two-year tour of Britain and Ireland in 1845, he stayed longer in Cork than anywhere else, so a monument to him in the city would be appropriate. On October 14 of that year, Douglass gave an address to an Anti-Slavery Breakfast held in Lloyd’s Hotel on what is now Oliver Plunkett St. Among a distinguished audience of elected representatives and business people was John Francis Maguire, a barrister and MP and founder of the Cork Examiner in 1841.

The evident affection Douglass felt for Cork was reciprocated in the effusive “Address to Frederick Douglass from Anti-Slavery Societies of Cork,” which was printed as a supplement to the Examiner on November 7, 1845.

When protesters pulled down the statue of Edward Colston, they were engaging in a symbolic act with many precedents throughout the centuries. Statues of once towering figures, from Napoleon to Saddam Hussein, have been toppled. In Ireland statues to British kings bit the dust in Dublin and Cork while the monument to Queen Victoria that once graced College Green in Dublin was removed by the city council and sent to Australia, an ironic gesture as that was where many poor Irish were sent during the reign of the Famine Queen.

A more benign approach was taken with a small statue of a young Queen Victoria that once adorned Queens College Cork (now UCC). It was removed in the 1930s and ‘planted’ in the rose garden of the college president before being later unearthed. During the 2011 British royal visit to Cork, the strange tale was explained to Queen Elizabeth by John A Murphy, Emeritus Professor of history at UCC. 

Whenever asked why the statue had been buried rather than destroyed, Prof Murphy would respond: “because they were nationalists, not vandals.”

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