A letter in the Irish Times by General Gordon described the prevailing condition of the Irish peasantry in terms uncannily reminiscent of other witnessed over two centuries. He found them “patient beyond belief….loyal, but at the same time broken spirited and desperate, living on the verge of starvation in places where we would not keep our cattle….. The Bulgarians, Anatolians, Chinese and Indians are better off than many of them are”. But in 1880 they began to fight back. In 1879 the west of Ireland was plunged into another Famine as the potato crop had failed completely.
The country at that time was at the height of National Politics and Agrarian Conflict. That period between 1880 and 1892 was known as the Land War. The Land League had been had been formed by Michael Davitt and Charles Steward Parnell. Michael Davitt was the son of a small farmer whose family were evicted from their farm in Mayo when he was 4 years old, after which the family went to Lancashire and at the age of 10 he had an arm severed in a factory accident, but despite all this he later went to become a journalist and became active in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, he was arrested and incarcerated in Dartmoor for 7 years, after that he left England and went to America to solicit support for reform in Ireland. Their aims at that time was to get justice for the tenants using peaceful means. They had no fixture of tenancy, and rents were continually rising, they could never really own the land they lived on, and if they could not pay their rent they were evicted on to the side of the road, and their houses were levelled. 20,000 farmers had been evicted in the 3 previous years.
In Dublin the Phoenix Park Murders occurred in which the newly appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland Lord Fredrick Cavendish and the under secretary Thomas Henry Burke were murdered on 6th May 1882 the day after they came to Ireland to take up their appointments. In Mayo at that time the 3 most unpopular landlords were Lord Mountmorris, Lord Lucan and Captain Boycott. Lord Leitrim who had come from Donegal for the Spring fishing on Lough Mask had said that before he cast a rod he would evict 20 tenants, but he didn’t get to, as he was murdered in Milford on his way down.
Michael Davitt held a meeting in Irishtown Co. Mayo in April 1879 and 10,000 attended it.
Captain Boycott had moved to this area in 1878. He had inherited a lease on 300 acres and he was also the land agent for Lord Erne who owned 15,00 acres. Locally he became known as a tyrant. Rights that the tenants had been used to like collecting fallen wood for their fires and walking through the estate as a short cut to their homes were withdrawn. He was also the local Magistrate (ie. Judge). The tenants were allowed a 10% reduction in rent in that year 1879 but needed a 25% reduction because of the Famine but were served with eviction notices.
The Parish Priest at that time was Fr. John O’Malley. On 25th September he led a group of the local people to Boycott’s estate and advised the local workers to leave the farm and not to come back. Later that evening the Boycott family were alone on the farm. No mail was delivered to them, the shopkeepers refused to serve them. When members of the family tried to leave they were booed and hissed. Boycott was granted police protection. The tenants asked Lord Erne to dismiss him as Land Agent but he refused to. News of the stand-off spread worldwide, English, American and Australian papers were following it. Boycotts biggest problem were his crops which needed harvesting, as it was October, he appealed to his friends in the North and 50 Ulster Unionists volunteered, and arrived by train on 11th of November into Claremorris, the local cart drivers refused to provide transport and they had to be escorted on foot the 12 miles by the Military in rain and sleet during the night to save the crops, it took 5 hours to reach Ballinrobe and they were met by crowds of people jeering and booing. They had no shelter, and at this stage there were an extra 1000 people in the town between troops and reporters. The following day they were escorted the 3 miles out to Lough Mask. It took 2 weeks to save the crops and on 27th November they were escorted back on foot to Claremorris and back to the North. The local peasantry had been ordered by the Land League not to help in any way.
Boycott and his family decided to leave the area and return to England and had to be escorted by Army Ambulance to Claremorris where he left by train to Dublin and back to England. He died in Surrey on 27th June 1897.
The Boycott in Ballinrobe and continual agitation throughout the country and the founding of “The National Land League” in Castlebar on 21 st October 1879 forced the government to introduced Land Reforms and the “Gladstone’s Land Act of 1881” granted the 3 “F” Fair Rent, Free Sale and Fixity of Tenure, then the “Ashbourne Land Act” of 1885 and The Wyndham’s Land Purchase Act of 1903 and The Irish Land Commission in 1881. In 1947 the film “Captain Boycott” was made and starred Stewart Granger and Kathleen Ryan and was directed by Frank Launders. This event in Irish history gave a new word to the English language and that word was “BOYCOTT”.