By the end of the nineteenth century one of the central issues in Irish politics was land ownership. By this time is was apparent to many people that the way in which Irish land as owned, rented out, and inherited had contributed to the impact of the famines. At this time, almost all of the land in Ireland was owned by just 0.2% of the population and the 750 richest landlords owned half of the country. The key question facing politicians was what to do about it.
As politicians began their debates, another series of bad harvests swept across the island. Many landlords, afraid that their tenants would be unable to pay their rents, began the process of evicting tenants from the land. In response to these eviction, the Irish National Land League emerged in 1879 to fight for the rights of the small tenant farmers.
The League wanted three things: First, it asked for rent in line with the actual market value of the land: not the inflated rents set by the landlords. Second, the League wanted rent agreements which provided a fixed tenure by clearly stating how long the tenants could stay on the land. Third, the League asked that the tenants be given a say when the land was sold. The League’s demands were called the 3-Fs (fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale).
In general the National Land League wanted to get Irish land into the hands of the small Irish farmers. It wanted to get land away from absentee landlords who had little interest in the welfare of their tenants.
The struggle for land in Ireland was often present in religious terms. Britain, a Protestant country, was trying to control Ireland whose residents were predominantly Catholic. The Catholic Church supported the campaigns for land reform.
The National Land League attacked the landlords who charged unfair rents, treated their tenants badly, and evicted their tenants. At times, these attacks were physical in which landlords and their families were beaten.
In 1880, the National Land League also developed an interesting and novel approach to dealing with some of the landlords. Captain Charles Boycott of Lough Mask House, County Mayo, was the land agent for one of the bad landlords, Lord Erne (John Crichton, the third Earl of Erne). The idea for dealing with Captain Boycott was a simple one: the people would stop doing business with him or socializing with him. Farmers stopped working for him and the entire community was encouraged to ostracize him. Shops in the nearby community of Ballinrobe stopped serving him. All of Boycott’s servants and laborers were persuaded to quit. From this land reform movement the English language acquired the word “boycott.”
A caricature of Captain Boycott is shown above.
In response to the boycott against Captain Boycott, 50 Orangemen (Protestants) from County Cavan and County Monaghan travelled to Lord Erne’s estates to harvest the crops. A regiment of troops and the Royal Irish Constabulary were deployed to protect the harvesters. It has been estimated that the British government spent at least £10,000 to harvest about £500 worth of crops. The British viewed the boycott as victimizing a servant of a peer of the realm. After the crops were harvested, Boycott and his family left Lough Mask House in an army ambulance (no driver could be found for a carriage) and they returned to England.
The boycott organized by the National Land League extended to those who had taken on the land from which the tenant farmers had been evicted. Overall, the boycott proved to be an effective tool for social and political change. The boycott strengthened the power of the peasants and at the end of 1880 there was boycotting throughout Ireland. In 1881 the Irish Land Law Act was passed and the Irish Land Commission was established to fix rents and guarantee fixity of tenure.
With regard to the etymology of “boycott”, it entered the English language quickly and appeared in print before the concept of the boycott was widely known outside of County Mayo. In 1888, the word was included in the A New English Dictionary of Historical Principles (later known as the Oxford English Dictionary). Other languages, such as Dutch, French, German, Polish, and Russian borrowed the word from English.