>A sort of moral Coventry – the first boycott


Towards the end of the 1870s the Irish Party in the UK and Clan na Gael in the USA agreed on a campaign for land reform and tenant farmer protection. The Irish National Land League was formed in October 1879, just as a succession of poor harvests, the reappearance of potato blight and harsh weather brought many subsistence farmers once more to the brink of starvation.

Charles Parnell MP, leader of the Irish Party and president of the Land League set out his stall for non-violent action (or, perhaps more properly, inaction) at a rally in front of 12,000 on 19 September 1880 in Ennis, Co. Clare. His own words are far more eloquent than mine, and this extract from his speech that day clearly outlines the Land League’s plan

“Now, what are you going to do with a tenant who bids for a farm from which his neighbour has been evicted? Now I think I heard somebody say, “Shoot him”, but I wish to point out to you a very much better way, a more Christian, a more charitable way which will give the lost sinner an opportunity of repenting.

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 at the shop counter, you must show him in the fair and at the market place and even in the house of worship, by leaving him severely alone, by putting him in a sort of moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of his kind as if he were a leper of old, you must show him your detestation of the crime he has committed.”

The first person to be subjected to this treatment was a land agent for the Earl of Erne who took over a farm in Co. Mayo. His name was Captain Charles Boycott.

His name, transformed into a noun and verb, was widely used in newspaper reporting around the world (even being rendered as boikotto in Japanese) and soon entered the dictionary.