The Troubles of Captain Boycott, Part I: The Land League

Captain Boycott, whose name has added a word to the English language, was accepted as a symbol of the landlord class in troubled Ireland. By T.H. Corfe.

The episode that earned for Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott his secure place in the histories of Ireland and the dictionaries of England was rich in the mingled farce and tragedy that has characterized so much of Anglo-Irish history.

The affair, variously described by contemporaries as “The Boycott Relief Expedition,” “The Invasion of County Mayo,” or “The Famous Diggin’ of Boycott’s Prayties,” took place in the miserably damp November of 1880 and in the miserably impoverished west of Ireland.

The treatment accorded to Boycott, and the publicizing of the technique there first employed, constituted one of the key points in a social and political revolution, a significant stage in the transition of Ireland from dependence and landlordism to self-government and peasant proprietary.

In the struggle that swept Ireland in the autumn of 1880 Boycott was one victim among many; but certain features of his position and personality rendered him more vulnerable than most to economic pressure and political propaganda. He belonged of course to the landlord class, and it was the avowed object of the newly created Land League to destroy landlordism.

Throughout the summer its speakers at one mass meeting after another had denounced the iniquities of landlords, and their vigorous and ruthless language had fallen on ready ears. By September, the mere mention of landlords roused automatic cries of “Shoot them!” from enthusiastic audiences.

But Boycott was not himself a landlord. He leased a 1,000-acre farm from the venerable Lord Erne, which he worked with the aid of fifteen to twenty labourers. He also acted as agent for the Mayo estates of Lord Erne, remote at Crom Castle in the heart of his 30,000 Ulster acres, far away from the troubled west. As agent, it was Boycott’s duty to collect some £430 a year in rents from thirty-eight tenants.

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