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.
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.’
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.