Tag Archives: Captain Charles Boycott

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: On boycotting

This is a work-in-progress blog serial about aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited


“The author … tells a story … of ‘boycotting’ long before Boycott.”
–William Henry Hurlbert

Hurlbert mentioned “boycott” about two dozen times in his book, which is somewhat remarkable considering the word had not existed eight years earlier. It resulted from the 1880 social and commercial ostracism of County Mayo land agent Captain Charles Boycott in a key early protest of the decade’s agrarian agitation in Ireland.

In his discussion about boycotting in Milltown Malbay (See previous post), Hurlbert referenced a passage from the 1852 book Fortnight in Ireland, by  Sir Francis Head. The book was based on Head’s one-week visit to the island, his first, near the end of the Great Famine.

In a description of religion conversion efforts tied to charity (“Protestant missionary zeal with Protestant donations of meal”, in Hurlbert’s phrasing), Head noted 36 years earlier:

Any Roman Catholic who listens to a Protestant clergyman, or to a Scripture reader, is denounced as a marked man, and people are forbidden to have any dealings with him in trade or business, to sell him food or buy it from him.

A boycott! The phenomenon is even older, however, according to Samuel Clark in his seminal work, Social Origins of the Irish Land War:

The practice was obviously not invented by Irish farmers in 1880. For centuries, in all parts of the world, it had been employed by active combinations [social groups] for a variety of purposes. In rural Ireland itself the practice of refusing to bid for involuntarily vacated farms or for distrained livestock had a long history, as did the ostracism of landgrabbers. Even during the Land War, the tactic was used well before the Boycott affair; and it had been advocated on numerous occasions before [Charles Stewart] Parnell recommended it in September 1880.


It seems an oversight by Hurlbert that as he reported about boycotting in County Clare, he did not reference Parnell’s speech eight years earlier at Ennis. Parnell spoke weeks before Boycott’s troubles began in the Lough Mask area of Mayo, 80 miles to the north. Parnell said:

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.


Michael Davitt also used the image of a leper in his 29 January 1888, speech at Rathkeale; the oration about not overusing the term “Bloody Balfour” that caught Hurlbert’s attention upon his arrival in Ireland. Davitt also said:

I maintain that a landgrabber is a thief, when he covets and steals his unfortunate neighbor’s holdings, and I want to say once more, what I repeated on a hundred platforms, that the landgrabber incurred malediction in the days when the Holy Bible was written: ‘Cursed be he who removes his neighbor’s landmark.’ He is a cowardly, slimy renegade, a man who should be look upon as a social leper, contact with whom should be considered a stigma and a reproach.

As noted in an earlier post, Davitt complained in his diary that the Freeman’s Journal (and other papers) did not report this portion of his speech. It was, however, quoted in Parliament the week that Hurlbert was in Clare.

In Ireland Under Coercion, Hurlbert reported that some landlords and their workers suggested they were able to withstand boycotts without much impact. In places such as Kerry, however, he noted that the “dual government” of the Land League “enforce[d] their decrees by various forms of outrage, ranging from the boycott, in its simplest forms, up to direct outrages upon property and the person.”

This included the murder of boycotted Kerry farmer James Fitzmaurice, two days after Davitt’s Rathkeale speech. See my earlier post.

Period illustration of the January 1888 murder of boycotted Kerry farmer James Fitzmaurice in front of his daughter Nora. She was not physically harmed.

I’ll give the last word to Father Patrick White, parish priest of Milltown Malbay, who Hurlbert reported as being “the moving spirit” behind a series of boycotts in Clare. Father White denied the allegation in his rebuttal booklet, Hurlbert unmasked: an exposure of the thumping English lies of William Henry Hurlbert in his ‘Ireland Under Coercion’ . He explained:

There was unquestionably boycotting in the district, and as [local Land League] president … I had to take note of it. The people, goaded by desperation by the terrible distress of [18] ’78, ’79 and ’80, were up in arms against the heartlessness and the cruelties of the Landlord system, which had paved the way to it. … Against such an obstacle as this neither an appeal to justice nor argument of was of any value whatsoever, so boycotting was resorted to. Desperate diseases require desperate remedies … The people fully appreciated my difficulty [as a priest] acting as president with them, and never pressed me to accept, or put from the chair, any boycotting resolution.

I’ll return to this issue in a future post about another word that came out of the late 19th century agrarian agitation in Ireland: moonlighting.

NOTES:  Hurlbert referenced Fortnight on page 172 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Quote about “dual government,” etc., on page 219. Quote from Head on page 155 of Fortnight. Quote from Clark on page 311 of Social Origins. Quote from Father White on pages 17-18 of Hurlbert Unmasked.

NEXT: Killone Abbey

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan