Douglass & Cork's Unitarians

I speak just what I feel – and what all who are acquainted with the facts will confess to be true, when I say that to your’s (i.e. Richard Dowden) and the deep interest which the Miss Jennings took in me and my mission, I am almost entirely indebted for the success which attended my humble efforts while in the good City of Cork. I shall ever remember my visit with pleasure, and never shall I think of Cork without remembering that yourself and the kind friends just named constituted the source from whence flowed much of the light, life and warmth of humanity which I found in that good City. I received the token of your esteem which you sent, I have it on the little finger of my right hand, I never wore one-or had the disposition to do so before, I shall wear this, and prize it as the representative of the holy feelings with which you espoused and advocated my humble cause.

Frederick Douglass- letter from Cork City and County Archives

Cork was not Frederick Douglass’ first exposure to Unitarians. Douglass had previously spoken at the Unitarian Meeting House in Uxbridge, Massachusetts on June 25, 1845.

While New England churches were generally supportive of the abolitionist movement, the feeing was not unanimous. Uxbridge’s Evangelical Congregationalist minister, John Orcutt, had been warning his parishioners against attending Douglass’ planned address across the town square in the Unitarian Meeting House. During his speech at the Unitarian Meeting House, Douglass reflected on this opposition saying: If I go bleeding and panting, fugitive as I am, to yonder Orthodox church, I am bolted out by your Rev. Mr. Orcutt.

After speaking at Uxbridge’s Unitarian Meeting House, the Douglass, was soon to leave for Europe where he would again experience Unitarian hospitality during the three week portion of his trip spent in Cork City, beginning 10-October-1845. 

Douglass’ trip Europe served two purposes. First it was to promote the world-wide abolitionist cause. Second, it was a self-imposed exile to protect him from kidnapping. After Douglass escaped from slavery, he enjoyed relative safety in Massachusetts. This freedom was not absolute, because while Massachusetts did not allow slavery, Douglas continued to be a potential target of bounty hunters (called slave catchers) who would forcibly return him to slavery in the southern US slave states.  This threat became much more acute when Douglas began to attract major attention as a vocal abolitionist spokesperson, author of an autobiography about his life as a slave, and even becoming the subject of a popular abolitionist folk song.

Douglass’ Cork experience was facilitated by Richard Dowden, who was both the mayor (the title of Lord Mayor did not come into use until 1900) of Cork and also the treasurer of the Cork Unitarian Church. Mayor Dowden and Quaker Billy Martin, along with Unitarians Thomas Jennings and his daughter Isobel, accompanied Douglass throughout his stay in Cork. This facilitated Douglass’ introduction to other Cork notables such as Theobald Matthew, The Apostle of Temperance. Although Rev Matthew was a Catholic priest and a Capuchin Friar, he had close ties to the Unitarians who had covered the debts Matthew accrued as a consequence of his relief work during Cork’s typhus epidemic.

Douglass also stayed with the Jennings family in Cork. They ran the Jennings Soda Water company and resided in an upscale house on Brown Street.

Ironically during his stay in Cork, Douglass learned that he had recently been sold and was now considered to be the property of Hugh Auld the brother of Thomas Auld, his previous owner. An arrangement was made in 1846 to ransom Douglass by “purchasing” his freedom. This project involved collaboration on both sides of the Atlantic and was organised by Anna Richardson of Newcastle, a relative of Cork Unitarian Ann Jennings, who had opened her home to host Douglas during his stay. 

At the conclusion of Douglass’ Cork stay Mayor Dowden presented Douglass with a gold signet ring on behalf of the people of Cork. Douglass was very moved by this gift, stating that it was the first piece of jewellery he ever owned. 

In a letter written from Limerick to Richard Dowden,  Douglass thanked him: for the many attentions which you pleased to show me during my somewhat protracted stay in the City… Trampled, reviled and maltreated as I have been by white people . . .you may readily imagine the grateful emotions which thrill my heart when I meet with facts ? forever dispelling the darkness of such infernal doctrines.

Frederick Douglass died on February 20th 1895, fifty years after his visit to Cork. At the time of his death. on the little finger of his right hand, Frederick Douglass was still wearing the ring presented to him by Richard Dowden.

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