You can now read 5 articles in a month for free on BostonGlobe.com. Read as much as you want anywhere and anytime for just 99¢.

Across The Pond

An unexpected link between Ireland and black America

Governor Deval Patrick marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by taking part in a communal reading of a lecture by Frederick Douglass (seen in the background) on Boston Common.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe/File

Governor Deval Patrick marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by taking part in a communal reading of a lecture by Frederick Douglass (seen in the background) on Boston Common.

DUBLIN — There was a time in Ireland, not long ago, when seeing a person of color was a noteworthy occurrence. So you wouldn’t think that Black History Month has much relevance here.

But you’d be mistaken.

Continue reading below

In August 1845, former slave Frederick Douglass set sail from Boston for a two-year lecture tour of the British Isles, commencing with four months in Ireland — including a pivotal meeting with Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell — that would have a transformative effect on the famous abolitionist’s subsequent life and career.

The plain facts of Douglass’s extraordinary tour — arranged primarily to escape the increased threats of kidnapping and bodily harm brought on by the publication of his best-selling autobiography — are available to anyone with an Internet connection.

But if you’d like a literary take on what Douglass felt and thought and experienced during his time in Ireland — which, by late 1845, was on the brink of full-blown famine — then allow me to suggest Colum McCann’s 2013 novel, “TransAtlantic.”

In a chapter entitled simply “freeman,’’ McCann gives a vivid account of Douglass’s visit to the Emerald Isle, which begins inauspiciously in Boston when he is “forced into steerage on the steamer Cambria even though he had tried to book first class.”

The United Kingdom was a sensible enough destination for an abolitionist campaigner — in 1807, Parliament had prohibited any British involvement in the slave trade, and then in 1833 it outlawed the practice in most of the empire’s overseas colonies — but why was Douglass bothering with Ireland?

‘Even in Massachusetts he was still chased down the street, beaten, spat upon.’

Quote Icon

Historically and in McCann’s fictionalized account, Douglass has good reason to include Ireland in his tour. “The Irish abolitionists were known for their fervour. They came from the land of O’Connell, after all. The Great Liberator. There was, he’d been told, a great hunger for justice.”

In comparison to Boston — “Even in Massachusetts he was still chased down the street, beaten, spat upon” — Douglass finds Dublin a welcoming place where he is no longer a piece of property but a rightful man.

His appearance alone marks him out — thanks to a rigorous exercise regime the 27-year-old Douglass is “broad-shouldered, muscled, over six feet tall” — and when he arrives at the home of his Dublin publisher, he is met with a courtesy and deference befitting an international celebrity.

Douglass’s acclaim reaches into the city itself. He is invited to dinner with Dublin’s Lord Mayor. And when the renowned author rises to speak at book signings, “the applause often extended a full minute.”

But it is Douglass’s brief acquaintance with Daniel O’Connell — “Ireland’s truest son,” just turned 70, who “had adventured his life for proper freedom” — that opens his mind to the question of universal human rights. Indeed, at a rally in Dublin, Douglass is brought onstage and introduced by the Great Liberator himself as “the black O’Connell.”

Unfortunately, I can only hint in this space at Colum McCann’s achievement in bringing Frederick Douglass’s Irish odyssey to life.
It is all there: his brief descent into the staggering filth and degradation of Dublin’s underclass (“Douglass had never seen anything like it, even in Boston . . . Men lay collapsed by the railings of rooming houses. Women walked in rags, less than rags: as rags.”); his near-supernatural journey by horse and carriage through a hunger-ravaged land (“In the road they saw the cold and grainy shape of a woman . . . dragging behind her a very small bundle of twigs attached to a strap around her shoulders . . . On the twigs lay a parcel of white. ‘You’ll help my child, sir?’ she said.”); and, more light-heartedly, his exceedingly moist introduction to Irish weather (“Rain fell more steadily now. Grey and unrelenting. Nobody seemed to notice. Rain on the puddles. Rain on the high brickwork. Rain on the slate roofs. Rain on the rain itself.”)

Pick up a copy of “TransAtlantic” and introduce yourself to Frederick Douglass, Boston freeman and adopted son of Eire.

Medford native Steve Coronella has lived in Ireland since 1992. His new novel, “Designing Dev” — a comic tale about an Irish-American lad from Boston who runs for president of Ireland — is now available for download from Amazon’s Kindle store. He can be reached at sbcoro@eircom.
net
.
Loading comments...
Subscriber Log In

We hope you've enjoyed your 5 free articles'

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week
Marketing image of BostonGlobe.com
Marketing image of BostonGlobe.com
Already a subscriber?
Your city. Your stories. Your Globe.
Yours FREE for two weeks.
Enjoy free unlimited access to Globe.com for the next two weeks.
Limited time only - No credit card required!
BostonGlobe.com complimentary digital access has been provided to you, without a subscription, for free starting today and ending in 14 days. After the free trial period, your free BostonGlobe.com digital access will stop immediately unless you sign up for BostonGlobe.com digital subscription. Current print and digital subscribers are not eligible for the free trial.
Thanks & Welcome to Globe.com
You now have unlimited access for the next two weeks.
BostonGlobe.com complimentary digital access has been provided to you, without a subscription, for free starting today and ending in 14 days. After the free trial period, your free BostonGlobe.com digital access will stop immediately unless you sign up for BostonGlobe.com digital subscription. Current print and digital subscribers are not eligible for the free trial.