Sunday, January 25, 2015

Frederick Douglass and coffee at the embassy

Group photo in the embassy, includes Swedes - Tom's book - Tom (right) presents book to ambassador
Last Monday to a coffee morning hosted by the Irish ambassador in London. We have Frederick Douglass to thank, a major figure in US 19th century history, though little known on this side of the Atlantic.  Indeed I had never heard of Douglass till Tom told me about him. That’s Tom Chaffin, husband of my Swedish cousin Margareta and a professor of history at the University of Tennessee. The occasion was Tom presenting the ambassador with his book Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary

Frederick Douglass - Daniel O'Connell
When they met in 1845
Douglass was about 27, O'Connell was 70.
So you could say these images are ill-chosen, for which I can only apologise
A memorable day, and what I didn't expect, the ambassador, Dan Mulhall, was himself an historian and a specialist on Daniel O'Connell, so had a real and not mere diplomatic interest in Tom's book, which includes Frederick Douglass's meeting with O'Connell in 1845. O'Connell is himself a colossus of Irish 19th century history. Dublin’s main street and bridge are named in his honour. A little digression here, the original name was Sackville Street changed in 1924 amidst a flurry of patriotic post-independence re-naming, and I always assumed O'Connell Bridge got its name at the same time as the street. But I crossed the bridge last week and was surprised by a plaque saying the Dublin Corporation re-named it in 1882. And to heap digression on digression, according to Wikipedia O'Connell Bridge is unique in Europe as the only traffic bridge wider than it is long: a circumstance evident in the photo below, though it had previously escaped me. Douglass’s bridge is in Washington DC, but I've sought in vain for any idiosyncratic facts about it to entertain you with.

Top, O'Connell Bridge over the Liffey in Dublin: broader than it is long.
Bottom, Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge over the Anacostia in Washington, D.C: rather dull.
A bit more about Douglass. He escaped bondage in Maryland in 1838 aged about 20, and eventually earnt a living as an abolitionist lecturer, travelling widely across the North, enthralling audiences and raising funds for the campaign. When his prominence brought him into danger from slave catchers he crossed the Atlantic to lecture in the British Isles. Tom’s book is about the four months he spent in Ireland, and Daniel O’Connell’s influence on him. There were complex reasons why Douglass avoided taking sides on the Irish national question, which Tom deals with in this 2011 New York Times article.  Also worth reading, this one about Douglass and Lincoln, and how he influenced the president’s thinking on the emancipation question in the latter half of the Civil War.  An aspect of Irish and American history that I find of abiding interest, is the widespread Irish-American support for slavery, and hostility towards abolitionists. Here's a review of Tom’s book that focuses on this, and also on Douglass and the famine.

A salute

Can't finish this post without saluting John Green, Chairman of the Glasnevin Trust, who was the fixer for the day. Not only did he fix the embassy meeting, but also a lecture for Tom at Dublin’s Glasnevin Museum a couple of days earlier, and moreover he fixed a guided tour of London’s Tower Hill Memorial where my Swedish great uncle Axel is remembered. My mother’s sister Barbro was especially keen to see this. Axel lost his life on a torpedoed British merchant ship in 1917.

No space here for an essay on Glasnevin Cemetery. Originally established by Daniel O’Connell in 1828. If you’ve an interest in Irish history, the cemetery and museum are a must. My cousin Meta and I had a guided tour in twilight, magical! 

And finally, I said Douglass is little known on this side of the Atlantic. But Meta tells me our uncle Gösta used to give his books as presents, so maybe I ought to have said “little known to me” …  

John Green, fixer and Chairman of Glasnevin Trust

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