Remembering Michael Davitt, and the Etymology of Boycott.

Though it’s a word very much in common parlance – and especially recently in the face of Israel’s continuing devastating apartheid of the Palestinian people – I wonder how many people out there who casually use it know the exact etymology of the word boycott?

Today marks the 115th anniversary of the death of Michael Davitt, an Irish republican activist for several causes, including land reform, and whose co-founding with Charles Stewart Parnell of the Irish National Land League in 1879 not only made the previously comfortable life of one Captain Charles Boycott decidedly uncomfortable indeed but helped place ‘boycott’ on the lips of English speakers for generations to come.

Michael Davitt

Davitt was born in County Mayo in 1846, when the Great Hunger had its grip on Ireland. One of five children, the Davitt’s were tenant farmers with little means, ensuring they were hit hardest by the potato famine. Evicted from their land, they emigrated to England. arriving in Haslingden in East Lancashire. Here, the young Michael began working in a local cotton mill at the age of just nine years old, as was commonplace; but his lifetime of mill drudgery was curtailed when an accident with a cogwheel ensured his right arm was amputated. As a young man, Davitt became involved in the Irish republican Brotherhood and served seven and a half years of a fifteen years sentence for treason after being apprehended gun running. On his release in 1877, Davitt returned to Ireland only to be confronted by yet another famine just two years later. Against a backdrop of unrest, Davitt began agitating for land reform and the liberation of Ireland from absentee English landlords who had no claim to their land. Adopting the slogan of ‘the land for the people’, Davitt and Parnell established the Irish National Land League with Davitt serving as secretary to Parnell’s president. The organisation sparked a ‘land war’ which the English Liberal government met with the 1881 Protection of Persons and Property Act. This act enabled internment without trial of anyone suspected of involvement in the land war, including Davitt who found himself once more incarcerated.

Charles Boycott

Captain Charles Boycott was the land agent of absentee English landlord, Lord Erne of County Mayo. As such it was his duty to preside over his lordship’s tenants, a duty he fulfilled with the usual characteristic haughty contempt. Boycott enforced extortionate rent practices and cruelly and forcibly evicting any family too impoverished to pay what was asked of them. Things came to a head in 1880 when, inspired by the formation of the Irish National Land League, Lord Erne’s tenants opted not for violent measures and instead organised a mass-passive resistance movement against their inconsiderate and avaricious English master. In a cause célèbre that became known as the Lough Mask affair (Lough Mask being the name of Boycott’s house), the tenants and local activists of the Irish National Land League campaigned for the Three Fs (fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale) by withdrawing their labour and isolating Captain Boycott, with shops and local businesses giving him the cold shoulder by refusing to serve him. The reaction from England was one that was suitably appalled, with the media reporting that the agent of a peer of the realm was being victimised by Irish peasants. With the harvest due and no tenant willing to bend an arm for the agent, a team of loyal Orangemen from County Cavan and County Monaghan arrived to work the land, but they required protection from the British army, in the shape of a regiment of the 19th Royal Hussars, and more than 1,000 men of the Royal Irish Constabulary. All this took its toll on the crown’s purse, costing around £10,000 to harvest about £500 worth of crops. Embarrassed, England admitted defeat and Captain Boycott was removed from the role of agent and from Ireland itself, under the protection of the Hussars, on 1st December 1880. From that day forward, Boycott’s name has entered the lexicon. He lived out the remainder of his days as an agent on an estate in Suffolk, dying on June 19th, 1897.

In 1882, the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone reached an informal agreement with Parnell that became known as the Kilmainham Treaty, allowing amnesty for some 130,000 tenants who had been excluded from the rent-fixing authorised by the 1881 act and in arrears. In return, Ireland dropped its agitation and the Land League was dissolved. Davitt was released from gaol, but served a further prison term for sedition in 1883 during the Fenian dynamite campaign, despite denouncing the bombings. In 1893 he entered parliament having successfully won the by-election for North East Cork. His major cause continued to be Home Rule, which he campaigned tirelessly for. He died in Dublin at the age of 60 on May 30th, 1906 from septicaemia following a tooth extraction.

A 1947 film from Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat entitled Captain Boycott depicted the story and was, unusually for a British film in the postwar period, surprisingly pro-Irish and sympathetic. However, that’s not to say that Boycott (Cecil Parker) is depicted as an out and out villain or that the tenants themselves, led by matinee idol Stewart Granger as Hugh Davin (a character whose name at least was possibly inspired by Davitt) are wholly heroic – Noel Purcell’s tenant McGinty, for example, displays a degree of bloodlust that borders somewhat on the maniacal and must be curtailed by both Granger and Alastair Sim’s suitably eccentric Father McKeogh. Ultimately, the film seems to suggest that the whole affair stemmed not from any flaw in England’s colonialism upon Ireland, but in the character of Boycott himself. This is argument is put forward by Maurice Denham’s commander of the Hussars, suggesting that the filmmakers placed great store and faith in the perceived right of Britain’s armed forces. On the whole, Launder and Gilliat deliver their tale with enough wit and colour to never feel like the history lesson it essentially is at heart. However, the token romance between Granger’s Davin and Kathleen Ryan as Anne Killain feels forced and screams of a necessity for commercial purposes. Better is a brief but effective cameo from Robert Donat as Parnell, with the actor’s natural charisma and gravitas ensuring that the appeal his speech holds for the tenants subsequently inspired to act is convincing for the cinema audience.

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