LIAM Ó RAGHALLAIGH argues that history has been unkind to the man who gave a new word to the English language.
Charles Cunningham Boycatt was born on March 12th, 1832, to Reverend William and Georgiana Beevor Boycatt of Burgh-St-Peter, Norfolk, England, where his grandfather and great-grandfather had also served as Protestant Rectors, and it was here that he acquired his love for horses and an ambition to join the army. Sometime around 1840 ‘Boycatt’ became ‘Boycott’.
On the 15th February, 1850, Boycott was commissioned as Ensign in the 39th Foot, which was under orders to proceed to Ireland, and early in May, the Regiment sailed for Belfast. Charles was a well educated, loyal, honest and God-fearing Christian, 18 years old with a spare frame and stood 5’ 8” in height.
On June 5th, 1852, Charles married Irish girl Anne Dunne, in Dublin, and in August, the 39th marched 100 miles south-west to Clonmel, Co Tipperary where on December 17th, probably due to ill-health, Charles resigned his commission.
He and his wife lived for the next year at Landscape, Kilsheelin before moving to Achill Island, Co Mayo in the spring of 1854, where he had leased 2,000 acres from the Dugort Protestant Mission.
Boycott built a stone house with a slate roof, high on the southern slopes of Croaghaun Mountain, overlooking lonely Keem Bay and he kept sheep and black cattle; hunted game on the mountain; grew vegetables; kept poultry and fished the bay, which was teeming with fish and shellfish.
By 1871 ‘Captain’ Boycott had proven himself a capable farmer in a challenging environment, when the Earl of Erne, who owned 40,386 statute acres in Ireland, 2,184 of them in Mayo, offered him the agency of his lands near The Neale, and a lease on a farm of 629 statute acres with good house, yard and stables.
In 1870, landlords owned 80 per cent of the land of Ireland while 50 per cent of tenants occupied holdings of less than 15 acres and three quarters of holdings were annual tenancies.
On May 1st, 1874, Boycott took a 31 year lease on Lough Mask House and farm and, unknowingly, began his march into history. He had found the home ‘where he would spend the remainder of his days’ but it was to prove to be the wrong place and the wrong time.
Although still a tenant farmer himself, he was probably the largest employer in the area and got on well both with his workers and the locals. He kept a few racehorses, which he often rode himself at local Meets with some success, and hunted and fished in season.
As the Earl of Erne’s agent he had a duty to collect the rents from the other 35 tenants and generally look after the estate, but after 20 years in the county, he was a Mayo man.
On October 21st, 1879, The Land League was founded with the ‘3 Fs’ as its aims – Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale. That year was very wet with poor harvests; starvation again stalked the land and 48,000 Mayo people sought refuge in work-houses.
The spectre of famine once more hung over the country, and Mayo, with its bogs and mountains and mainly poor land, became the focus of the hostility to England and Landlordism.
After the General Election of April 1880, Charles Stewart Parnell became leader of an 86-member Irish Party at Westminster. On Sunday, September 19, 1880, Parnell made his ‘Shun Him’ speech in Ennis, Co. Clare, and the eviction of tenants for non-payment of rent was about to lead to a new level of protest and violence.
On September 22, 1880, David Sears, process server, escorted by 17 RIC Officers, began serving Lord Erne’s defaulting tenants with eviction notices, in accordance with the law, but they were soon forced back to Lough Mask House by the local women, under a shower of stones, mud and dung.
It seems that at this stage ‘Captain’ Boycott had been targeted by the Land League as a test case ‘to gain the eyes and ears of the world’, because the following day his farm was invaded by a mob of up to 100 and his workers warned off; three of them refused to leave.
On September 25th, 1880, local landlord, Lord Mountmorres, was assassinated and on October 14th Boycott wrote to ‘The Times’ in London setting out his predicament and seeking help with his harvest.
At this time, all landlords, Agents and Bailiffs were under threat of violence and many were assassinated, but Boycott seemed to bear a charmed life. He took what precautions he could, but when the gunmen found him, as they did, they always missed. Why? Other agents were not so lucky.
Could it be because he spoke Irish, had an Irish wife, and was known as a horse-loving, sporting sort of man. Local lore has him well- regarded and nobody really wanted to harm him.
Boycott needed no more than 10 or 12 men but 50 Orangemen from Cavan and Monaghan, had volunteered to ‘get in the Captain’s turnips’. They arrived at Lough Mask House on November 12th, escorted by hundreds of soldiers and they were accommodated in tents on the lawns, barns and the boathouse.
On November 27th the ‘Relief Expedition’ departed and it was reckoned that it had cost up to £10,000 to save a harvest worth £350. Left without protection, and with no alternative, the Boycotts quietly and sadly left their home the following day in an army ambulance wagon escorted by a troop of the 19th Hussars.
In the spring of 1881, travelling as ‘Mr & Mrs Charles Cunningham’, the Boycotts sailed for the US, arriving in early April. It had been a long hard winter for Boycott and he recovered his health and humour on his first visit to the ‘New World’.
In August 1881 the Boycotts returned quietly to Ireland and Lough Mask House, and Mayo lore has them warmly welcomed home by the local people.
Boycott had sought £6,000 compensation for losses sustained ‘due to the absence of Law in the West of Ireland’, but was unsuccessful and, finally, had to leave Lough Mask; he could no longer afford the rent and was, in effect, evicted.
Charles Cunningham Boycott was raised in a Christian family to be an honest, law-abiding and God-fearing gentleman and nothing we know invalidates this description. He farmed well, looked after his workers, fought his own corner and enjoyed the respect and regard of the local people; but the Land League needed a hate-figure and he was chosen.
In the past decade alone, there have been hundreds of evictions all over this country, still in accordance with the law but without the battering rams, and our banks and building societies are now the landlords, but the police are still the bailiffs, only without steel helmets. We no longer hear any names.
Boycott died, aged 65, on June 19th, 1897, the day Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, and his headstone was erected by his Catholic employer, Sir Hugh Adair.
In 1886, Lough Mask House and farm was bought by local farmer, Bernard Daly, and today his grandson, John, lives there with his wife, Patricia, son, Alan, and his family, so we have a direct link back to Boycott’s life and times.
In 1951 John Daly rode in the horse race in the movie, ‘The Quiet Man’, and, if Boycott was still in Mayo, he would, without doubt, have been in Lettergesh with the rest of the cowboys, riding the range with John Wayne, and loving it. History has wronged ‘Captain’ William Cunningham Boycott and it’s high time we gave him back his name. ÷
• Postscript: Sadly John Daly died on January 31st this year. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.