Since the time of the Bards, the Irish have been proud of, and justly famous for, their command of language. Not only have they produced more than their fair share of writers (Swift, Joyce, Yeats) but they have also contributed more than their fair share of words to the English language (galore, caddie, slogan, spunk and fittingly enough gab). In one case though, the Irish gave the oppressed of the world not only a word, but a means for all those who were downtrodden and oppressed to fight for their just rights against the powerful.
In the 1870’s, several consecutive failed harvests were bringing back memories of the Great Hunger. The land of Ireland was owned by less than 1% of the population, over half of the land in the hands of only 750 families, many of them absentee British landlords. Despite successive crop failures, these landlords were not averse to using the power of eviction to charge increasingly excessive rents, often using improvements the tenants themselves had made to the property as justification. As in the dark days of Black ‘47 the landlords’ agents were callously evicting tenants when they couldn’t afford these extortionate “rack-rents.”
Against this background arose two men: Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell. Davitt was the son of a Mayo farmer who was evicted during the Great Hunger, forcing the family to immigrate to England. In trying to help support his family, the young Davitt lost one of his arms while working as a child laborer in the notorious conditions of a 19th century English cotton mill. Davitt went on to become a journalist and an active member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, in whose cause he received a fifteen year prison sentence. However, Davitt was released after seven years through the efforts of Charles Stewart Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party. Parnell, the son of a prosperous Anglo-Irish family, was considered one of the great orators and politicians of his age and dedicated to acheiving Irish Home Rule. This unlikely alliance of the son of an evicted tenant farmer and the son of an affluent propertied family saw the current land crisis as a unifying opportunity to take a stand for Irish empowerment. Both Davitt and Parnell believed that constitutional and coordinated nonviolent action would offer a better chance to achieving Irish aspirations than armed resistance that the military might of the British Empire could easily suppress.
In October 1879, Davitt formed the National Land League with Parnell as its leader. The National Land League goal was to stop evictions and unfair rental practices with an eventual objective of returning control of the land of Ireland back to the native Irish people as a first step to eventual Irish home rule. On September 19, 1880, Parnell in a speech in Ennis, County Clare posed the question to the crowd “What do you do with a tenant who bids for a farm from which his neighbor has been evicted?” Various voices in the crowd shouted “shoot him” or “kill him.” Parnell dismissed the calls for violence and in a historic reply proposed an alternate nonviolent solution:
“I wish to point out to you a very much better way – a more Christian and charitable way, which will give the lost man an opportunity of repenting. When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him – you must shun him in the streets of the town – you must shun him in the shop – you must shun him on the fair green and in the market place, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of the country, as if he were the leper of old – you must show him your detestation of the crime he committed.”
The first target of Parnell’s tactic of social isolation was the land agent of the wealthy Lord Erne in County Mayo. The agent was a self important man who was additionally a local magistrate with a history of abusing his powers in both capacities to further petty quarrels and to show the residents “their place”. A few days after Parnell’s speech, this agent gave orders to a processor server accompanied by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) to serve eviction notices on several tenant farmers. The eviction party beat a hasty retreat when confronted at one of the homes scheduled for eviction by a group of angry local women. At this point, Parnell’s strategy of social isolation was applied. Within days, all of the agent’s house and farm staff had quit, the blacksmith refused to shoe his horses, the postman refused to deliver mail and, since no store would serve him, food had to be brought in from miles away by boat. A new word thus entered the English language to describe this tactic of social isolation taking the name of the land agent it was first applied to: Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott.
Seeing the united peaceful action of the Irish as an indirect attack on the British Empire, English newspapers and politicians called for action. Funds were raised to transport fifty loyalist farm workers to harvest Boycott’s crops. Despite the fact that there had been no violence and the Land League had assured that the protests would remain peaceful, the fifty workers were escorted by a combined force of one thousand police and soldiers. It is estimated that the British government spent £10,000 to harvest £350 worth of potatoes. Despite these face saving efforts, Captain Boycott could not endure living as a pariah and soon left Ireland to fade into obscurity while his name went onto to become a verb signifying the coordinated isolation of a person or organization.
This was the first skirmish in a protracted political conflict that came to be known as the “Land War”, a war of ballots rather than bullets. The coordinated actions of the Irish people almost secured through peaceful and constitutional means the Home Rule that Davitt and Parnell envisioned till derailed by the militant actions of men like Sir Edward Carson and the Ulster Covenant. The example of the Irish Boycott has been subsequently used in many parts of the world where the disenfranchised seek to take on the seemingly invincible. What should not be lost on us on Irish Americans is the strength and power we have when we act together in unity of purpose.
Historian – Neil F. Cosgrove
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Did You Know That?
Parnell’smother,Delia Stewart Parnell, was an American. Her Father, and Parnell’s namesake, was Admiral Charles Stewart, who at one time commanded the U.S.S. Constitution, Old Ironsides.
• The Land League platform was summarized as “the 3 F’s”: Fair Rent, Fixture of Tenancy (giving the tenant the protection of an agreed upon lease for the land as opposed to being subject to eviction at the Landlord will), and Free Sale (the tenant having the right of first opportunity to purchase the land he leased if it was to be sold).
• The Statue of Parnell that stands at the north end of O’Connell Street in Dublin was sculpted by Irish American Sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens (born in Dublin to an Irish mother and French father). In addition to sculpting many famous statues, particularly of Civil War heroes, Saint Gaudens alsodesigned the twenty dollar “Double Eagle” gold piece, consider by experts as the most beautiful American coin ever produced.
• Though often political adversaries, British Prime Minister Gladstone once described Parnell as “(a) most remarkable and the most interesting (man). He was an intellectual phenomenon ”
• There is an anecdote that in 1791 a Dublin theater owner James Daly made a bet that he could introduce a word into the language within twenty- four hours. Daly then went out and hired a group of boys to write a nonsense word, on walls around the city of Dublin. Within a day, the word was the talk of the city with people “testing” one another as to its meaning. The word survives to this day: Quiz.