Boycotting and the Agrarian Agitation

Father John O’Malley, parish priest of The Neale, Co Mayo, was the inventor of the word ‘boycott’ and Mr James Redpath, the American journalist, who came over to write the terrible story of the land war in Ireland accords O’Malley credit for inventing the word for him.

Almost half of what were termed ‘agrarian outrages’ (maiming of cattle, destruction of property, wounding and even killing of land agents, landlords, and those who were considered ‘land grabbers’) in the early 1880s occurred in Mayo, Kerry and west Galway. At the same time, Mayo attracted international attention, and in the process gave a new word to the English language, by initiating a rather novel form of non-violent protest.

Father John O’Malley orchestrated the campaign against the ‘Boycott Relief Expedition’. It was he who suggested the term ‘boycotting’ as being easier for his parishioners to pronounce that ‘ostracisation’.

This involved a campaign of ostracisation against Lord Erne’s Mayo agent, a Norfolk man named Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, whose efforts to secure the harvest from the estate on the eastern shore of Lough Mask necessitated the importation of some fifty Orangemen and a force of about a thousand soldiers and police to protect them.

The unfortunate Boycott realised by late November 1880 that all his efforts had been in vain (the harvest had cost over 10,000 – ‘a shilling for every turnip dug’ said Parnell), and so, taking his family with him, he returned to England until the agitation had subsided.

The land agitation was gradually resolved by a scheme of a state-aided land purchase, under which the tenants became full owners of the land. A series of land purchase acts provided the finance that enabled the tenants to purchase the land from landlords and repay the loans with interest over a number of years.

Tenant farmers became owner-occupiers within a generation and in the process created the foundations for the politically stable Irish society present today.