I can describe the exact moment of conception. On the evening of September 22nd, 1880 Father John O’Malley was sharing a meal with American journalist James Redpath, when the priest noticed that the American was not eating. Redpath explained, “I am bothered about a word. When a people ostracize a land grabber; (but) ostracism won't do’…Father John…tapped his big forehead, and said, 'How would it do to call it "to boycott him”?'. Mr. Redpath wrote, “He was the first man who uttered the word, and I was the first who wrote it.” (Talks About Ireland, 1881) Freed from its incubator in the central highlands of Mexico, Phytophthora infestans, the Potato Blight, arrived in Ireland in the 1830’s. But it was in the decade after 1845 when it exploded and consumed the entire potato crop. In those ten years 20% of the eight million people of Ireland starved to death and 20% emigrated. And yet Ireland did not explode until a generation after “The Starving Time”. And the precipitant cause of that eventual explosion was a minister’s son who became for a time the most hated man in Ireland. His name was Charles Cunningham Boycott. And he bloody well deserved it.In 1878 the blight came back, and every year following. The British government struggled to respond with church based relief, but politics now added to the human misery. The Corn Laws which placed a duty on imports prevented cheap American wheat from feeding the hungry, and insured that the bounty of Ireland was used to feed England. By 1880, of the four million souls still living on the emerald isle, fewer than 2,000 owned 70% of the land. Many of the largest, wealthiest landowners were absentee landlords, who hired local farmers to manage their estates. “Captain" Boycott was one of these. The three million tenant farmers of Ireland owned nothing and over the previous two years the rents on their homes had gone up by 30%. Those who could not pay were evicted. Those who were evicted usually died. To argue it was not intended as “genocide” misses the point. Ireland was teetering on the edge of revolution. On Tuesday, July 3rd, 1880, three men emptied their revolvers into the head and face of twenty-nine year old David Feerick, an agent for the Browne estate outside of the village of Ballinrobe, County Mayo. No one was ever convicted of the murder. In early September, outside of the same village, “Captain” Charles Boycott, who owned 4,000 acres himself, called on the tenants to harvest the oat crop of Lord Erne, whose larger property he managed. “Captain” Boycott would be described by the New York Times (in 1881) as 49 years old; a red faced fellow, five feet eight inches tall, the son of a Protestant minister who had served in the British Army. He earned his title of Captain for his daring attitude in sport. The day he called them back to work Boycott also
informed the tenants that their wages were being cut by almost half. The tenants simply refused to work. The Boycott family and servants struggled for half a day to cut and harvest the oats, before admitting defeat. Mrs. Boycott then appealed to the tenants personally, and they responded to her by bringing in the oat crop before the winter rains ruined it. On September 19th, Charles Stuart Parnell, an Irish politician, addressed a mass meeting in the town of Ennis, calling on people to shun any who took over the property of an evicted tenant. “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 in the fair and the marketplace, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him severely alone — putting him into a kind of moral Coventry — isolating him from his kind like the leper of old.”On September, 22nd, a local process server, accompanied by police, issued eviction notices to eleven of the tenants of “Captain" Boycott. They were not surprised. One told a local newspaper, “He treated his cattle better than he did us.” The agent would have issued more eviction notices, but a crowd of women began to throw mud and manure and the agent had to retreat into the Boycott home. The next morning, September 23rd, a large crowd from Ballinrobe marched to the Boycott home and urged the servants to leave. By evening the couple and a young niece living with them, were alone in the house.A letter written by “Captain” Boycott was published in the London Times. It made no mention of the raising of rents, only of the refusal to pay. It made no mention of the cutting of salary, only of the refusal to work. It did detail in full the travails of Captain Boycott and his family. His mail was not delivered. He was followed and mocked whenever he left his farm. “The shopkeepers have been warned to stop all supplies to my house. I can get no workmen to do anything, and my ruin is openly avowed…” Harpers Weekly Illustrated News for December 18, 1880, recorded what happened next. “A newspaper correspondent first started the idea of sending assistance to Captain Boycott…one person alone promised to get together 30,000 volunteers. Mr Forester, Chief Secretary for Ireland, at once vetoed the project of an armed invasion…It was accordingly decided to pick out some fifty or sixty from the great number of Orange (Protestants) from northern Ireland who were anxious to volunteer. Under military protection (of 1,000 troops) these men harvested Captain Boycott’s crops… The cost of this singular expedition was about ten thousand pounds…” It took two weeks under military guard for the inexperienced Ulster men to bring in the crop of turnips, wheat and potatoes, valued by Boycott as worth about three hundred and fifty pounds. Mr. Parnell estimated that meant the harvest had cost the English government “one shilling for every turnip.” Boycott left Ireland with his family on December 1, 1880, traveling in the back of a miltary ambulance and escorted by soldiers. He never returned. Some one described his exile as the “death of feudalism in Europe.