WITH the South Main Street Quadrille Band playing music in the gallery and a crowd of 250 people still milling about, Fr Theobald Mathew, Ireland’s ‘Apostle of Temperance’, stepped onto the stage of the Temperance Institute on Academy Street in Cork. It was getting late in the evening of Monday, October 20, 1845, when he finally introduced the night’s guest of honour — the 27-year-old escaped slave Frederick Douglass.
Born a slave in Maryland in 1818 before escaping north aged 20, Douglass was best-known as an anti-slavery campaigner. Keenly aware, however, of the manner in which slave-owners dulled the spirits of slaves by plying them with alcohol on Sundays or holidays like Christmas, he was also an ardent advocate of temperance.
Douglass thanked Mathew before describing for his audience the progress (or lack thereof) of the temperance movement in America, especially among African Americans. He was cheered loudly throughout and ended in traditional Irish fashion by singing a song.
Describing the night, Douglass was struck by the openness of the Cork audience to a person of his colour. “Amongst them all, I saw no one that seemed to be shocked or disturbed at my dark presence. No one seemed to feel himself contaminated by contact with me. I think it would be difficult to get the same number of persons together in any of our New England cities, without some democratic nose growing deformed at my approach. But then you know white people in America are whiter, purer and better than the people here. This accounts for it!”
Douglass had been in this country since late August, on a two-year lecture tour of Britain and Ireland. He had been advised to leave after the publication of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, an attack on slavery that disclosed his real name (Frederick Bailey) and that of his owner (Thomas Auld). Douglass had feared slave-catchers — a legitimate concern at a time when free blacks as well as escaped slaves were being captured and sold south, as evidenced by Solomon Northup of 12 Years A Slave.
After a month in Dublin, Douglass travelled down through Wexford and Waterford to Cork. He would spend more than three weeks in the city, enraptured by the company of his Unitarian hosts, the Jennings family of Brown Street (now Paul Street shopping centre) — his friendship with Isabel Jennings forming a central part of Colum McCann’s recent novel TransAtlantic. He may also have spent a night at the Patrick Street home of William ‘Billy’ Martin, the elderly Quaker who had introduced the Tipperary-born Fr Mathew to the temperance movement.
Douglass had heard of Fr Mathew in America. In Dublin, he saw him administering the temperance pledge to about 1,000 people in Booterstown. When he finally met the 55-year-old in Cork they got on famously, Mathew inviting Douglass to his home for breakfast.
“Welcome! Welcome, my dear sir, to my humble abode,” Mathew called, rushing out to greet Douglass. It was a simple, unprepossessing home. “The breakfast table was set when I went in,” Douglass recalled. “A large urn stood in the middle, surrounded by cups, saucers, plates, knives and forks … all of a very plain order … too plain, I thought, for so great a man.”
Douglass seemed quite in awe of Mathew. “His whole soul appeared to be wrapped up in the temperance cause … His time, strength and money are all freely given to the cause; and his success is truly wonderful.”
Although teetotal for eight years, Douglass was happy to take the pledge from the man he called the “living saviour of Ireland”. “He complied with promptness, and gave me a beautiful silver badge. I now reckon myself with delight the fifth of the last five of Fr Mathew’s 5,487,495 temperance children.”
Douglass’s attitude to Mathew soured, however, when the temperance leader arrived on a tour of America in 1849. Having previously supported the anti-slavery cause, Mathew refused an invitation from Garrison to attend an anti-slavery rally, saying, “I have as much as I can do to save men from the slavery of intemperance, without attempting the overthrow of any other kind of slavery.’
Garrison took to the pages of The Liberator, denouncing Mathew in a series of open letters. Where Garrison raged, Douglass mourned. ‘Nothing reveals more completely … the all-prevailing presence … of slavery in this land, than the sad fact that scarcely a single foreigner who ventures on our soil, is found able to withstand its pernicious and seductive influence … We had fondly hoped, from an acquaintance with Fr Mathew, that his would be a better fate; that he would not change his morality by changing his location … We are however grieved, humbled and mortified to know that HE too, has fallen.’
* Laurence Fenton’s Frederick Douglass in Ireland: The ‘Black O’Connell’ is published next week by the Collins Press