Category: Archive

Hibernian Chronicle 120 Years Ago: Capt. Boycott

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

One hundred twenty years ago this week, on Sept. 24, 1880, Captain Charles C. Boycott noticed something strange. As the land agent in charge of rent collection and evictions on the estate of Lord Erne in County Mayo, he’d never been the most popular man around. But today something was noticeably different. None of his men showed up for work and no one he approached would look at him, much less speak with him. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Boycott was now the focus of a campaign of ostracism that soon would spread throughout Ireland and eventually add a new word to the English language.

The context for the campaign against Boycott was a severe agricultural crisis that spawned the nationalist movement known as the Land League. After two decades of good harvests and falling rates of tenant evictions, the first of seven consecutive poor harvests hit Ireland in 1878. In addition, prices for many Irish farm products plummeted, making it virtually impossible for small farmers to pay their rents. By 1879, tens of thousands of Irish tenant farmers faced both starvation and eviction. There was even talk of the unthinkable — another famine.

The agricultural crisis struck just as Irish nationalists John Devoy and Michael Davitt had joined forces with Charles Stuart Parnell to demand home rule for Ireland. As part of this effort, Davitt organized angry tenant farmers into the Irish Land League to demand not only home rule, but land reform. As the League put it in its Declaration of Principles:

"The land of Ireland belongs to the people all of Ireland, to be held and cultivated for the sustenance of those who God decreed to be the inhabitants thereof."

In a country where 70 percent of the land was owned by only 2,000 people, while 3 million tenants owned none at all, this was a powerful and popular message.

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The League called for the redistribution of property from landlords (who would be compensated) to tenants. To bring this about, tenants began to withhold their rents. Some resorted to violence, destroying crops, maiming cattle, and in a few cases murdering landlords or their agents. Landlords responded with mass evictions on a scale not seen since the Famine. The struggle became known as the "Land War" and its revolutionary potential sent chills through the Protestant Ascendancy.

Another tactic employed in the Land War was social ostracism. Those who aided landlords by collecting rents or carrying out evictions found themselves cut off from all social contact. This was especially true for those "land grabbers" who took over an evicted farmer’s holding. As Parnell put it in a speech to farmers in County Clare: "When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must show him on the roadside when you meet him, you must show him in the streets of the town, you must show him at the shop-counter, you must show him at the fair and at the marketplace and even in the house of worship, by leaving him severely alone. By isolating him for the rest of his kind, as if he were a leper of old, you must show him your detestation of the crime he has committed.

It was Captain Charles Boycott’s fate to become the most famous example of this tactic. The press in England and the U.S. ran frequent stories detailing his mounting frustration in the face of the protest. The estate’s tenants refused to pay their rents, to assist in evictions, or to till the land of an evicted family. With the harvest looming, he made a desperate appeal to British officials for help. Eager to weaken the Land League, they provided the embattled Boycott with 1,000 British soldiers to protect 50 Cavan Orangemen brought in to harvest the estate’s crops. The operation cost the government £10,000 or, as Parnell sneered, the absurd price of "one shilling for every turnip." Boycott, not surprisingly, left Ireland for England soon thereafter.

The Land League and its radical tenant protest faded by 1883, but the boycott lived on. Irish workers introduced it to the U.S. in the early 1880s and transformed it from social ostracism in a rural setting to economic shunning in an industrial one. In other words, they targeted offensive businesses and their products rather than the business owners and their managers. Although increasingly difficult to utilize effectively in an era of multinational corporations, the boycott remains a popular instrument of protest in America and across Europe today.


Sept. 20, 1803: United Irishmen leader Robert Emmett is executed for leading a rebellion in Dublin.

Sept. 21, 1795: Protestant and Catholic forces clash in the Battle of the Diamond in Loughgall, Co. Armagh. The incident leads to the founding of the Orange Order.

Sept. 21, 1897: Eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon writes a letter to the New York Sun. Editor Frank Church responds with his famous ode to Christmas, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

Sept. 22, 1927: Heavyweight champion Gene Tunney survives the famous "long count" knockdown and goes on defeat former champion Jack Dempsey in their celebrated rematch.


Sept. 20, 1886: Nursing pioneer Elizabeth Kenny born in Warrialda, New South Wales.

Sept. 21, 1827: Civil War General Michael Corcoran born Carrowkeel, Co. Donegal.

Sept. 23 1800: Educator and author William McGuffy born in Washington County, Pa.

Sept. 24, 1896: Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald born in St. Paul.

€ Ed O’Donnell may be reached at odonnell@PastWise.com.

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