Fr Kevin Hegarty
The campaign, ‘Black Lives Matter’, is one of the big stories of the summer. It has led to calls for the removal of statues of political leaders who supported slavery.
The statue of Daniel O’Connell, that adorns Dublin’s main street, is not in danger. For O’Connell helped end slavery in the British Empire and campaigned for its abolition in the United States.
He dominated Irish politics in the first half of the 19th century. He led the struggle that secured ‘Catholic Emancipation’ in 1829, a victory that gave an immense psychological boost to a people demeaned by the Penal Laws of the 18th century.
Having witnessed the terror of the ‘French Revolution’, he was opposed to violence as a means of achieving political objectives. He created the first mass political movement in Europe. He devoted the last two decades of his life to a campaign for a repeal of the Union and the establishment of a parliament in Dublin. Though unsuccessful, the power of his advocacy ensured that the issue remained live until the establishment of the Irish State in 1922.
In his biography of O’Connell, ‘King of the Beggers’, Seán Ó Faoláin offers a perceptive assessment of his career:
“He taught simple men to have pride and he taught them how to fight. He gave them the elements of life, cleverness and the seed of civilisation. He did define and he did create. He thought a democracy and it rose. He defined himself and his people became him. He imagined a future and the road appeared. He left his successors nothing to do but follow him.”
O’Connell did not confine himself to Irish concerns. His commitment to social justice was universal. It inspired his revulsion of slavery. He stated once: “I am the friend of liberty in every clime, class and colour. My sympathy is not confined to the limits of my own green island; my spirit walks abroad on sea and land, and wherever there is oppression, I hate the oppressor.”
He anti-slavery rhetoric was pungent and passionate. In a speech to an anti-slavery meeting in London in 1829 he declared that of ‘all men living, an American citizen, who is the owner of slaves, is the most despicable’.
Later that year, at a meeting of the Cork Anti Slavery Society, he praised Simon Bolivar, the ‘liberator’ of South America for his anti-slavery policies. He condemned George Washington, the first US President and an icon of American history, for owning slaves. He wished to visit American but ‘so long as it is tarnished by slavery, I will never pollute my foot by treading on its shores’.
Advised by a friend to tone down his rhetoric because American slave owners were very powerful, O’Connell retorted: ‘What care I for the vagabonds were they twice as powerful’. He hoped for the day ‘when not a single American will be received in civilised society unless he belongs to an anti-slavery union or body’.
In 1845, the black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who had escaped the slavery into which he was born, visited Ireland. He wanted to meet O’Connell to thank him for his support for the abolition of slavery. He claimed that the ‘poor trampled slave of Carolina’ had heard the name of the Irish leader with ‘hope and joy’. Together they addressed an anti-slavery meeting in Dublin.
In 2011 President Barack Obama paid tribute to both of them:
“For his part, Douglass drew inspiration from the Irishman’s courage and intelligence, ultimately modelling his own struggle for justice on O’Connell’s belief that change could be achieved peacefully through rule of law … the two men shared a universal desire for freedom that cannot be contained by language or culture or even the span of the ocean.”