Colum McCann on anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass and his connections to Ireland 

As Douglass Week kicks off in Cork, the Irish novelist talks about the visionary campaigner whose incredible story featured in his TransAtlantic novel 
Colum McCann on anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass and his connections to Ireland 

Frederick Douglass and Colum McCann.

The renowned Irish novelist Colum McCann emigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s. He spent almost two decades publishing big, imaginative novels about characters like ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev as well as the high-wire artist Philippe Petit in his masterpiece Let The Great World Spin before returning to write about Ireland and its history in his novel, TransAtlantic.

At the heart of TransAtlantic is Frederick Douglass’s story. Douglass visited Ireland for several months on a lecture tour to promote his best-selling autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, and to raise awareness and money for the abolitionist movement in the United States. The timing of his visit is noteworthy – Douglass arrived in Ireland in autumn 1845, just as the Great Famine was sweeping through the country.

“I thought it was an incredible story – and one we needed to hear, especially in Ireland,” says McCann about the spark for his novel. “Here was the story of a man, 27 years old, a visionary, an abolitionist, yet still a 'slave', arriving in Ireland just as the Famine began to unfold. He had already published his memoir but there was an Irish edition forthcoming. And he landed among the gentry of Ireland, largely the Anglo-Irish. He toured around the country. His few months in Ireland were among the happiest in his life. ‘I breathe,’ he said, ‘and lo! the chattel becomes a man.’ ” 

Douglass, who was born in 1818, escaped a live of slavery in Maryland by making a break for the north where he became an anti-slavery activist. Interestingly in later life, he was on the ticket as a vice-presidential nominee for one of the candidates in the 1872 US presidential election race, a century and a half before Kamala Harris became the first person of colour to get the job.

His Irish lecture tour was a success: he spoke to packed crowds in several cities, including Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Waterford.

In Cork, he spoke at the Imperial Hotel to an audience that included John Francis Maguire, the founder of this newspaper. The hotel has a plaque commemorating his visit. Douglass did not, however, critique the handling of the Famine during his lectures, which is perhaps a surprise given he was a human rights activist.

“At first I was surprised that he did not speak out about the Famine and the conditions that the Irish were forced to suffer under British rule,” says McCann. “He remained largely silent about it. But gradually I began to understand why – he was in Ireland in order to further the cause of the three million of his people still enslaved in the United States. 

 “I am quite sure he felt an enormous empathy for our suffering, but he was unable to be very vocal about it simply because he had to protect his own people. Also, he was on his way to Britain to continue his abolitionist tour. And let's not forget: he was still technically a slave and could have been recaptured at any time. So Douglass was carrying so much weight on his shoulders.  

“I went from the position of being startled by the story, to being a little ambivalent about it, to a point, I hope, of deep understanding – finally my admiration for Douglass was boundless. But I also realise that, like all of us, he was a complicated human being. He was far ahead of his times. He carried a brokenness. He dared to think in new ways. But no history is neat and final. And that's what I wanted to write about and attempt to capture.” 

There is an exciting and varied line-up of events organised to commemorate Douglass’s visit to Ireland this week (see panel). An in-person festival was originally planned last year to mark the 175th anniversary of his Irish visit, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic it has moved online. It includes six strands, among them literature, sport and education.

Douglass was a huge advocate of learning, once remarking: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” 

Music, which was one of Douglass’s passions, is another one of the festival’s strands. While in a music store in Dublin, he asked the shop’s proprietor if he could try out a violin. He was given it with “seeming reluctance”, recalled Douglass, although he quickly won over the shop owner’s confidence with his accomplished renditions of The Irish Washerwoman and Rocky Road to Dublin. Many years later, he still has a lot to teach us.

“Douglass shows us what we can be if we have the true courage of our convictions,” says McCann. “We reach into the past in order to understand where we might eventually be tomorrow. It's a great lesson for all of us, especially in these difficult times, and especially for those people who have been shunted to the outside. It's about the pursuit of justice.” 

  • Colum McCann will read from and discuss his novel TransAtlantic along with fellow novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes as part of the free, online #DouglassWeek: Tracing Frederick Douglass’s Footsteps in Ireland festival, 8pm, Saturday, 13 February. See:

Colum McCann's TransAtlantic novel; right, a representation of Frederick Douglass on a Cork street.
Colum McCann's TransAtlantic novel; right, a representation of Frederick Douglass on a Cork street.

Douglass Week Festival Highlights 

  • Monday, 8 February, 7pm: Douglass/O’Connell Address: Lecture by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, followed by a panel conversation with Douglass descendant Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., Secretary General Niall Burgess, Mark Durkan from the John & Pat Hume Foundation, and including a tribute to the late US Congressman John Lewis.
  • Tuesday, 9 February, 8:30pm: Douglass and Diversity on Screen: Roundtable with actors Roger Guenveur Smith and Paul Oakley Stovall, who portrayed George Washington in the 11-time Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton, followed by live performance of Smith’s play Frederick Douglass NOW.
  • Wednesday, 10 February, 8pm: A Musical Evening to Commemorate Douglass featuring Hamilton stars Paul Oakley Stovall and Nikhil Saboo, Lesley Roy, Grammy-award winning songwriter Marcus Hummon and many others.
  • Thursday, 11 February, 8.30pm: Douglass’s Genres: Panel discussion highlighting Douglass’s significant contribution across several literary genres, including autobiography, oratory, letter writing and more.
  • Friday, 12 February, 8pm: Frederick Douglass: Past, Present and Future: Poetry readings featuring a selection of Irish and U.S. poets reading work about and inspired by Douglass; event includes announcement of #DouglassWeek Poetry Competition winner and a live performance of the poem by Roger Guenveur Smith Sunday, 14 February, 4pm: Painting Douglass: A conversation with Nikkolas Smith, Jim Fitzpatrick and other artists about the process of portraying iconic figures.
  • Sunday, 14 February, 8pm: Our Strong Women, featuring former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, Douglass descendant Nettie Washington Douglass, Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu, Dr Ebun Joseph and Emma Dabiri.

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