A plaque dedicated to the memory of the legendary American anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass, was unveiled by Mayor George Lawlor on the wall of Wexford Arts Centre during the first Wexford Civil Rights Festival.
Mr. Douglass gave two public talks in the Arts Centre (then known as the Assembly Rooms) in October of 1845, during four months that he spent living in Ireland. He came here as a young man aged 27, a fugitive who escaped slavery and went on to publish a widely read memoir of his time as a slave. With no formal education, he learned to read and write in secret, and became an accomplished writer and speaker.
The original idea for the commemmoration came from American-born Wexford resident Ed Barker and his wife Deirdre who discovered the Douglass connection and approached the Arts Centre and Cllr. Tom Forde who brought a motion to the Council. Deirdre wrote the inscription on the plaque.
'We were very emotional at the unveiling. It was a dream come true for us', said Deirdre. 'Ed had a brother who was murdered many years ago, who was named Frederick Douglass as his mother aspired to great things for him as a second class citizen in Alabama in the 1950's.'
Douglass met and befriended the Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell at one of his public meetings and he became an inspiration to him in his quest for the emancipation of slaves in America.
'Reports from the time indicate that Douglass's audience in Wexford was mostly people from the Quaker community. It is perhaps unsurprising that this particular minority was the most supportive of a newly-arrived refugee', said Mayor Lawlor.
'Quakers were established in Wexford from at least 1657 and although few in number, were influential in the history of Irish social progress'.
'In a way, Frederick Douglass could not have come to Ireland at a worse time. His visit coincided with the beginning of the Great Famine, which would continue for four years, causing the deaths of a million people and another million to emigrate.'
The Mayor said Douglass would have been acutely aware of the poverty and suffering of the majority in Ireland. During his long career as an agitator, he spoke on a wide range of issues, including women's rights, peace, land reform, temperance, free public education and the abolition of capital punishment'.
The Mayor said that in thinking about Frederick Douglass, he couldn't help wondering who his equivalent is today.
'Similar crowds gather around the country today to hear from people living in Direct Provision and from those who have escaped modern slavery on our own island, in domestic service, trawler fishing or prostitution. Unfortunately, people like Frederick Douglass are rare'.
'He was a man of extraordinary raw talent, who overcame slavery and was a champion of people who could not champion themselves'.
'By the end of his long career, he was hailed as the most influential African American of the 19th century. He remains an iconic figure and an inspiration to successive generations of reformers and agitators'.
'I hope that when people see this plaque, they will draw inspiration from the story of Frederick Douglass and take up his challenge to agitate for social reform and an improvement in the conditions of the poorest and weakest in our society', he said.
After the unveiling, there was a captivating keynote address by Pat Sheehan, Sinn Féin MLA from West Belfast, a survivor of the Hunger Strike of 1981 when his friend Bobby Sands died.
A Soapbox Challenge in the Creative Mall proved popular with speakers queuing to have their say on a soapbox made by Wexford Men's Shed. Helen Corish Wylde gave a fascinating talk on the 1911 Lock-Out, followed by an address by Dave Gibney from the Mandate Union about issues for working people in 2019.