the emergence of ‘boycott’ in The Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, in 1880


Captain Boycott - Illustrated London News - 10 July 1897

portrait of Captain Boycott – from The Illustrated London News – 10th July 1897





to boycott: to refuse to have dealings with a person, organisation, etc., or to refuse to buy a product, as a protest or means of coercion




This verb is from the name of Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832-97), land agent for the Earl of Erne, County Mayo, Ireland, who, with the encouragement of the Land League (see footnote), was ostracised for refusing to reduce rents. The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin) of Saturday 25th September 1880 published the most detailed account of the initial events:


On Wednesday and Thursday the secluded district of Loughmask, near Ballinrobe, and in the Neale parish, was the scene of a very exciting episode. It appears that the tenantry of the Earl of Erne around Loughmask, having failed in obtaining any reduction of rent either last year or in this, were marked out for eviction, and that ejectment processes were attempted to be served preparatory to the approaching quarter session, to be held at Ballinrobe on the 9th of next month. The people were completely unprepared for such extreme measures, and hence the process-server, David Sears, accompanied by seventeen police, had actually served three families before the alarm could be given. On approaching the house of Edward Fitzmaurice, of Barna, Sears was met by Mrs. Fitzmaurice and [she] assured that she would lose her life before she would allow the ejectment process to be served. In a few minutes a crowd of women and children fell on Sears and gave him very severe usage, so much so that he was thankful to be allowed to escape with his life, after vowing that he would not visit Loughmask again on such an errand for some time to come. Thursday, however, being the last day for serving such documents, the people expected that the processes would be served, and that a large force of Constabulary would be present. Accordingly, during the night of Wednesday and the morning of yesterday the word went round, and at an early hour on yesterday several hundred men had assembled around a flagstaff, bearing a large green flag, on a height overlooking the valley of Loughmask. In the meantime the women had been making their own preparations to give the agent of the law, or even some of his guards, a warm reception, as soon as the unwelcome visage would obtrude itself inside the door. Fortunately, however, they were spared any further troubles, as neither process-server nor police put in an appearance.
About four o’clock Mr. M’Ardle, S.I., R.I.C., appeared on the scene, accompanied by an escort of one armed man—a very rash proceeding on his part—for such was the excited state of the people that they would have given him rough treatment had not the curate of the parish, Father M’Hugh, been present to control them. Whilst waiting [for] the arrival of the procession and police the multitude, as if with one impulse, rushed to Loughmask House, the residence of Captain Boycott, the agent on the estate, and the party against whom the popular ire was chiefly directed, and in a very short time every labourer and servant employed on and around the place was driven off and cautioned not to work there again. It was then resolved that the unpopular agent, who farms about 400 acres of the estate, should be deprived for the future of any help whatever in the locality. Such was the excitement and apprehension of the tenantry that they did not quit the ground until after twelve o’clock last night, as it appears the processes could be legally served up to that hour. It is needless to add that the poor people are exultant at the victory which their firmness and courage have obtained for them. It is but fair to add that there have been but very few ejectment processes issued for these sessions.

It was not long before the verb to boycott appeared. On Thursday 11th November of that year, the same newspaper published the following:


Ballinrobe, Tuesday Night.

As I believe most people have rather a hazy idea about the whole Boycott disturbance, I have taken pains to ascertain from members of the local Land League what is the motive and extent of the singular hostility displayed towards this gentleman. The substance of the statement was this: It is not true, as Captain Boycott alleges, that all this trouble has arisen from his giving shelter to a process-server who was running for his life from an infuriated crowd. It is based upon the popular opinion of Captain Boycott’s whole conduct as land agent of Lord Erne. The Erne property around Lough Mask is farmed by about 120 tenants. They lived upon the most amiable terms with their landlord until Captain Boycott’s appointment to the agency a few years ago. It is stated that in a land agency previously held by him in Achill he was equally unhappy in his relations with the people. Last year an abatement of only 10 per cent. on the rents was made on the Erne property. The tenants attributed it to Captain Boycott’s influence that no larger abatement could be obtained. This year, the same offer of a 10 per cent. abatement was made by Captain Boycott, and was refused by the tenants, who, in general, went away without paying. They appealed to Lord Erne himself in a memorial, being persuaded that were it not for his agent they would have been treated with the same consideration as ever. Lord Erne’s reply was, however, that he had perfect confidence in Captain Boycott, and must leave the whole matter in his hands. Contemporaneously with his dispute with the tenants (so say the Land Leaguers) he had incurred the hostility of the seventeen or eighteen labourers who were employed by him on his own extensive grazing and tillage farms on the borders of Lough Mask. This was partly due to the low rate of wages, partly to some obnoxious regulations—as, for instance, fining a labourer the price of a spade or pitchfork if he injured it. The result of the dissatisfaction of the labourers was that at the beginning of the harvest they struck for higher wages on a principle altogether independent of the Land League. Their demand for higher wages was rejected, and then happened the extraordinary circumstances narrated of himself by Captain Boycott in the newspapers. He threw off his coat, and took up a sickle and spent a day reaping a field of corn, while his two nieces did the work of binders in the field beside him. His experience as a harvestman, however, appears to have been a rough one, for after a brief demur he agreed to the terms of the labourers, who thereupon resumed their work upon the farm, and cut and saved the corn crops. By this time, however, Captain Boycott had brought actions of ejectment against a few of the tenants who had been prominent in the movement for a reduction of rents. He obtained decrees for possession in due course. This it was which was the immediate occasion of the adoption of the policy which has added the ugly word “Boycotting” to the English language. The Land Leaguers assert that “Boycotting” means simply a voluntary withdrawal from the service of a person who in their view is a danger to his neighbours. The Land Leaguers deny Captain Boycott’s statement that his fences or anything else belonging to him has been injured, or that threats have been used to menace anybody to relinquish his service or refuse him provisions. The result is, at all events, an amazing one. It is perfectly true that for several weeks, without offering him any violence, the whole community stood, and still stand, at arm’s length from Captain Boycott. His labourers withdrew from him to a man; most of them have gardens of their own, upon the produce of which they are now living. A few, I believe, who have no means of existence, are supported by the Land League. The domestic servants at the same time gave up their employment. The groom, who had charge of Captain Boycott’s stud of hunters, quitted the service of Captain Boycott, who certainly appears to have a dash of the obstinate and courageous campaigner in him. He was reduced to groom his own horses, to drive his market cart, save his turf, and blacken his boots, while the ladies of his family performed the duties of domestic servants. The gentleman appears to glory in his menial occupations, as an incident will show. An archæological association is carrying on some works for the preservation of ruins of the islet of Innishmain in Lough Mask. The foreman of the works engaged as a residence Captain Boycott’s gate lodge, which was convenient to the lake, and desired to fit up a substantial grate therein. A mason in Ballinrobe was applied to adjust the grate in its place. The mason, after consulting various authorities in the town, was advised that as the placing of the grate could not be reckoned a service to Captain Boycott, it was not inconsistent with patriotism to accept the job. Upon getting to the lodge, however, he found that no mason’s labourer had been engaged. As he did not choose to undergo the labour of breaking into the wall himself to make room for the grate, he was about to abandon the job, when Captain Boycott dropped in, and learning that a labourer was wanted, immediately announced that he was his man, and thereupon pulled off his coat and commenced labour. Upon another day the mason being in want of a bucket to mix cement in, applied to the policemen stationed in the iron hut close to the gate lodge, but they declined to part with their bucket upon the ground that it was Government property and was not theirs to give. While the colloquy was going on Captain Boycott called in to ask for a loan of a loaf of bread, but there being only one loaf in the house, and that being already on the table for the breakfast of five hungry constables, they were obliged—so goes at least the statement made to me—to let Captain Boycott depart empty-handed. Nearly all the shopkeepers of Ballinrobe declined any dealings with him. He, however, managed to keep his house provisioned, and used to drive his own market cart into town from shop to shop in search of food, flanked by two gigantic policemen, who stick to him day and night like shadows. I was told of a baker who made a solemn proviso with some of the police stationed in the iron hut that if he sold them bread it should not be diverted to the use or enjoyment of Captain Boycott. The police themselves have suffered by their neighbourhood to the obnoxious gentleman. I was assured by the police that no later than yesterday morning the men stationed at the hut ordered and paid for coal, stating they would send for it in the evening, but when the cart arrived in the evening for the coal the merchant returned the money and announced that he would prefer to have no dealings with them. Another respectable shopkeeper in town was to-day anxiously consulting his neighbours upon a case of conscience. A policeman had asked him to accommodate a large number of mounted police in his house, which has a publican’s licence attached. Many similar acts of accommodation had passed between him and the police from time to time with satisfaction on both sides. The question was, whether he was to forfeit his licence and to turn the police into the streets. I am glad to say his advisers one and all advised him generally to keep his licence and air his beds. There is no trace of bitterness between the police and people in this quarrel. They both go their own way quietly. For the last week or two Captain Boycott has to some extent raised the siege. He has managed to procure household servants and a boy to groom his horses, and even some farm servants from other parts of the country. None of these people have suffered any sort of violence. The captain himself, too, was away winning a race at the Curragh and decorating promenades of the capital, while the honest Orangemen were picturing him to themselves as holding a sort of Ekowe, on half rations, against a host of Connaught Zulus thirsting for his blood. He has returned to Lough Mask in high spirits, and having five policemen lodged in his back yard and five more stationed before his front gate, appears to enjoy not a little that pitch of fame which has immortalised his name in the English dictionary, and brought an army of horse, foot, and dragoons to superintend the digging of his potatoes.



Note: The Land League was an Irish agrarian organisation that worked for the reform of the country’s landlord system under British rule. It was founded in October 1879 by Michael Davitt, the son of an evicted tenant farmer and a member of the Fenian (Irish Republican) Brotherhood. Davitt asked Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Home Rule Party in the British Parliament, to preside over the league. The league’s program was based upon the “three F’s”: fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale of the right of occupancy. (source: The Encyclopædia Britannica)

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