While it is well known that the American abolitionist and anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass visited Dublin in 1840s, something which Barack Obama focused on in his speech here last summer, what he made of Dublin is something many of us are perhaps unfamiliar with.
A letter Douglass wrote to William Lloyd Garrison in the United States, which was printed in The Liberator on 27 March 1846, is available in full to read online here. It is a truly grim account of Dublin in the 1840s. My thanks to James Moore for directing me to this great piece of social commentary.
I spent nearly six weeks in Dublin, and the scenes I there witnessed were such as to make me “blush, and hang my head to think myself a man.” I speak truly when I say, I dreaded to go out of the house. The streets were almost literally alive with beggars, displaying the greatest wretchedness—some of them mere stumps of men, without feet, without legs, without hands, without arms—and others still more horribly deformed
During my stay in Dublin, I took occasion to visit the huts of the poor in its vicinity—and of all places to witness human misery, ignorance, degradation, filth and wretchedness, an Irish hut is pre-eminent. It seems to be constructed to promote the very reverse of every thing like domestic comfort.
The immediate, and it may be the main cause of the extreme poverty and beggary in Ireland, is intemperance. This may be seen in the fact that most beggars drink whiskey. The third day after landing in Dublin, I met a man in one of the most public streets, with a white cloth on the upper part of his face. He was feeling his way with a cane in one hand, and the other hand was extended, soliciting aid. His feeble step and singular appearance led me to inquire into his history. I was informed that he had been a very intemperate man, and that on one occasion he was drunk, and lying in the street. While in this state of insensibility, a hog with its fangs tore off his nose, and a part of his face! I looked under the cloth, and saw the horrible spectacle of a living man with the face of a skeleton. Drunkenness is still rife in Ireland. The temperance cause has done much—is doing much—but there is much more to do, and, as yet, comparatively few to do it.