Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

The Case of Captain Boycott

When the flourishing trade of Ireland was destroyed, and skilled artificers became unknown in a country where they had once taken rank with the learned in mind and the noble of blood, the Irishman turned to the land for occupation, and from the land had, of necessity, to gain his scanty livelihood. How precarious were his means of subsistence can be read in the awful story of the Famine. Many a man turned his back on Ireland when his opportunity arrived, but the emigrant always said farewell to his country with a heavy heart, and many would face any privation rather than leave the homes where they had been reared.

The Irish peasant loved his land, though it was perhaps nothing but a narrow strip of barren pasture, where his own cow grazed, or his herd of goats. He always looked upon himself as the real possessor, if he seldom knew the pride of actual ownership. He paid his rent grudgingly from the poor farm produce he could raise, and it always seemed a large sum to him, be it never so paltry in the eyes of landlord and agent. The small farmer had reason to dread rent-days since there was the danger that he might have to pay more next year than the amount he had scraped together with hard toil. The thriftier peasant was discouraged from making improvements in his cabin when he found that he was liable to have his rent raised, if he made too fine a home. It seemed, under these circumstances, better to have a leaky roof than to have no roof at all. The terror of eviction was ever present to the man who held his land from a careless landlord. He might pay his rent punctually, and then be told on quarter-day that the master wanted his plot of ground for some special purpose and intended to pull down the cottages upon it. Many of the landlords responsible for wholesale evictions were absentees and knew nothing of the actual cruelty that their orders entailed. During the famine, Irish property had changed hands owing to the general distress, which fell heavily on landholders as well as tenants. Some owners had died from the disease that raged through Ireland, others from poverty caused sometimes by too lavish generosity, and others again died from sheer pain at the sights that met their eyes. The new landlords were not knit to their tenants by old ties of family affection, and without warm sympathy, landlord and peasant in Ireland must stand very far apart.

Evictions were always resented. When they were the results of hunger and misery, men of peaceful nature were driven to exercise the only power they had, which lay entirely in brute force. Agents coming to serve writs of eviction found what a dangerous errand it could be. They were lucky, indeed, if they escaped with nothing worse than a ducking in the nearest pond. The lawless peasantry were often driven to fierce acts of vengeance, taking the lives of master or agent in the blind wrath that came upon them after periods of starvation. The Irish leaders in the Parliament at Westminster knew that this dangerous spirit was abroad in agricultural districts, whence came reports of crimes that were generally put down to the long-standing grievance of the land. They knew that a different system prevailed in England, where there was more justice for the tenant, and they urged as strongly as possible, that the land-tenure in Ireland should be made a subject for reform.

The English Ministry waived the claim of the Irish members, proceeding to deal with other questions in Parliament. Men of note among the Irish party, exasperated by this indifference, then gave encouragement to a new plan of the Land League members, who refused to pay any rent till the landlords treated them fairly. All attempts at eviction were resisted, and the Land League grew so powerful that it threatened to rule the country. The members added considerably to their strength by a new way of punishing men who defied their principles. The Leaguers regarded, with even greater enmity than the landlords, the class of farmers who took possession of farms from which their own men had been evicted because they refused to pay the rent. The first man to be punished by the special method of the League was Captain Boycott, an Englishman, and agent to Lord Earne.

Captain Boycott, in his capacity as agent, served writs on some tenants near Lough Mask, where he had a farm of his own. In return, all the people of the neighbourhood agreed to shun him as though he had some dreadful taint upon him. His servants left the house, his labourers flung down their implements and left the fields, though it was harvest-time. Captain Boycott was a man of energy and courage, and he resolved to brave the League. He worked in his own fields with his wife working at his side, but their task would have been impossible, had they not received help from the North. The Ulster tenants did not suffer from the same grievances as other Irish farmers, and were inclined to oppose the League. They sent men, therefore, to Captain Boycott's farm to gather in the harvest, but there was surely never a less joyous scene than the fields, where reapers worked under the guard of armed men, who followed them closely to see that they were not made the victims of a terrible vengeance. Captain Boycott himself had been protected by a Government force when he set about his work in solitude it was equally necessary to protect any men daring to band themselves against the formidable Land League.

Similar scenes were re-enacted year by year in different parts of Ireland. The League could not be compelled to give up their "boycotting" by law, because its power lay not in what they did to men but in what they left undone. If a man was marked by the League for punishment, all the members of his household fall under the same isolation. His children were placed apart from other children at school and made to feel like outcasts. Servants ran grave risks when they took service with "boycotted" masters, for it was a law of the League that nobody should do a stroke of work for a farmer under the ban. To this day, indeed, such servants may be seen at chapel under the escort of armed policemen!

It was hard to sustain life sometimes on a "boycotted" farm. The master might be wealthy, but his gold was useless since it was not accepted for food. A shopkeeper would not sell his wares to a boycotted neighbour and all the necessaries of life had to be bought from a distance. The same difficulty attended the sale of farm produce, which might rot before a Land Leaguer would permit its purchase. The farmer usually tried to dispose of his eggs and butter in England, but in this case he suffered loss from the expense of carriage.

Laws of such extreme severity that they were known as Acts of Coercion were passed against the Land League but its policy never wavered. If a member committed any deed of violence, he could be punished by law, but he could not be sent to prison for simply refusing to hold intercourse with another man. Boycotting, however, was a form of revenge that did no better service to those who practised it than to draw the attention of the curious to Ireland. Evictions continued to take place frequently and blood was spilt whenever the police came into sharp conflict with the people.

The Land League struck fear into the hearts of Irish land-owners; it alarmed the Government, which had too long deferred the reforms it demanded. Captain Boycott and other farmers suffered from the League, and many members of that body suffered from sentences that often fell unjustly. The Prime Minister, who was later to strive for Home Rule in Ireland, was hardly more successful than his fellows in his attempt to grapple with the problem of the land.