Irish Tenant Farmers Stage First “Boycott” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The social and economic ostracism of land manager Charles Cunningham Boycott by Irish tenant farmers in County Mayo was a new tactic that addressed the land reform debate in late nineteenth century Ireland. The practice of “boycotting” unpopular land or business owners carried over into the social and labor movements of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

During the Irish Land War (1879-1881) Irish Land War (1879-1881) , a group of tenant farmers engaged in actions designed socially and economically to isolate an estate manager and rent collector named Charles Cunningham Boycott. The action, which lasted from September to November, 1880, was well publicized, and as a result, “boycotting” entered both the lexicon and the arsenal of people attempting to protest actions or to effect change. In that first boycott, the agricultural workers, tenant farmers, and townspeople of Ballinrobe, County Mayo, were reacting to increases in rents and falling agricultural prices. Accordingly, they refused to work for or sell goods or services to Boycott and his family. Agriculture;in Ireland[Ireland] Ireland;farm boycott Boycotts;origin of term Boycotts;in Ireland[Ireland] Boycott, Charles Cunningham Ireland;tenant farmers [kw]Irish Tenant Farmers Stage First “Boycott” (Sept.-Nov., 1880) [kw]Tenant Farmers Stage First “Boycott”, Irish (Sept.-Nov., 1880) [kw]Farmers Stage First “Boycott”, Irish Tenant (Sept.-Nov., 1880) [kw]Stage First “Boycott”, Irish Tenant Farmers (Sept.-Nov., 1880) [kw]First “Boycott”, Irish Tenant Farmers Stage (Sept.-Nov., 1880) [kw]"Boycott", Irish Tenant Farmers Stage First (Sept.-Nov., 1880) Agriculture;in Ireland[Ireland] Ireland;farm boycott Boycotts;origin of term Boycotts;in Ireland[Ireland] Boycott, Charles Cunningham Ireland;tenant farmers [g]Ireland;Sept.-Nov., 1880: Irish Tenant Farmers Stage First “Boycott”[5100] [c]Business and labor;Sept.-Nov., 1880: Irish Tenant Farmers Stage First “Boycott”[5100] [c]Agriculture;Sept.-Nov., 1880: Irish Tenant Farmers Stage First “Boycott”[5100] [c]Social issues and reform;Sept.-Nov., 1880: Irish Tenant Farmers Stage First “Boycott”[5100] Davitt, Michael Irish National Land League Daly, James Parnell, Charles Stewart Crichton, John Henry

The Boycott episode of 1880 must be placed in the broader context of the organization and mobilization of Irish tenant farmers for land reform legislation, and the political struggle for Irish home rule Ireland;home rule Home rule, Irish , or self-governance, during the late nineteenth century. Most Irish landlords did not live on their estates and employed land managers to oversee rent collection and run the estates’ day-to-day affairs. Since the eighteenth century, nearly all Irish landlords were Protestant, and most tenant farmers were Catholic. In addition to this social and religious divide, there was economic tension as well. As a visible representative of the landlord, the estate manager was a magnet for threats to life and property from disgruntled tenant farmers. The mobilization of the rural populace against Boycott, as well as occasionally violent encounters between tenant farmers and their landlords or estate mangers during the Irish Land War Irish Land War (1879-1881) , not only characterized the centuries-old struggle for the control of Irish land but also led to parliamentary reforms concerning land ownership, tenant rights, and the setting of fair land prices in Ireland between 1880 and 1903.

Irish tenant farmers being evicted from their homes on the land of a British absentee landlord.

(Library of Congress)

Boycott was born near Norfolk, England, in 1832. He purchased a commission in the British army and served out his commission in Ireland. After his discharge, Boycott and his Irish-born wife, Annie, managed a two-thousand-acre estate on Achill Island, County Mayo. In 1873, the Boycotts moved to Lough Mask Estate, near Ballinrobe, to manage some fifteen hundred acres and about forty tenant farmers for John Henry Crichton Crichton, John Henry , the third earl of Erne.

The late 1870’s was a period of falling crop prices, and many Irish tenant farmers who had difficulty in paying their yearly rents faced eviction. According to later testimony to a parliamentary commission in 1888, Boycott insisted that tenant farmers make full rent payment or face eviction, regardless of poor harvests. The difficulties over rent prices, payment, evictions, and land ownership came to a head in the summer of 1879. County Mayo farmers banded together in August, 1879, and formed the Mayo Tenants League. The league was led by Irish republican revolutionary Michael Davitt Davitt, Michael and newspaper owner James Daly Daly, James , and it rapidly adopted a policy of socially and economically isolating land managers, their assistants, and persons who purchased an evicted farmer’s land.

The protests in County Mayo and the general economic unrest in Ireland were noted by Charles Stewart Parnell Parnell, Charles Stewart , the leader of the Irish Parliamentary, or “Home Rule,” Party. Parnell sought a way to gain broader political support, and in October, 1879, he married the issue of Irish independence with land reform legislation in a series of meetings with Davitt Davitt, Michael . Parnell was appointed president of the Irish National Land Irish National Land League League and organized mass political rallies across Ireland through 1880 to promote the twin causes of independence from Great Britain and land reform. The practice of isolating land managers and farmers who purchased evicted rental lands was announced by Parnell September 19, 1880, at a speech in Ennis, County Clare. Five days later, on September 24, the ostracism of the Boycotts began at Lough Mask.

Boycott later testified to a parliamentary commission that all his household servants and agricultural workers had abandoned his service within a week’s time after the boycott began. Moreover, local blacksmiths, mail carriers, and grocers refused business dealings with the Boycotts. Boycott reported being “hooted and booed” in the town of Ballinrobe and along the country lanes. Fences and enclosures on the estate were broken down, and livestock was led astray by persons unknown. By the end of September, the Boycotts, their son, and a family friend had to perform every task themselves, including milking the cows, herding the sheep, cooking, and cleaning.

With the harvest only weeks away, Boycott’s case was publicized across Ireland and Britain by mainly Protestant, unionist, anti-home rule newspapers. Bernard Becker, a reporter for London’s Daily News, traveled to Lough Mask in mid-October, 1880, and wrote the first article specifically dealing with the Boycott case. Becker’s article was reprinted in major Irish newspapers, and Protestant unionists organized the “Boycott Relief Fund,” as well as calling for Protestant volunteers to travel to Lough Mask to help with the harvest.

A group of some fifty Protestant laborers, guarded by more than one thousand British troops, arrived in Ballinrobe on November 11, 1880. The group of laborers and soldiers was greeted by a hail of insults from the locals as they marched to the Lough Mask estate. The harvest was completed by November 25. Several threatening letters had been sent to the Boycotts during that time, but the presence of British troops prevented any large-scale disturbance. On November 27, 1880, the Boycotts, the laborers, and the soldiers left Ballinrobe by train to the mixed cheering and jeering of locals.

The Boycotts headed to Dublin Dublin , but the threatening letters continued. The manager of the hotel where the Boycotts had lodged was threatened with death if he continued to provide them shelter. Charles Boycott and his family booked the first ferry for England and left Ireland on December 1, 1880. Boycott returned to Lough Mask in 1881 and was again treated to boos and hisses in public. The workers, however, returned to the estate. Boycott continued to manage Lough Mask until 1886 without further incident. He returned to England in 1886 to manage an estate near Suffolk. Boycott died June 19, 1897, on the Suffolk estate.


The “boycott” of 1880 demonstrated the growing organizational power of Irish tenant farmers and the Irish Parliamentary Party against Protestant land owners and land managers, as well as increased support for Irish independence. This episode in Irish history also briefly united the militant Irish Republican Brotherhood Irish Republican Brotherhood with the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party. The event and others like it across Ireland also impelled the British government to enact a series of land reforms in Ireland (1880-1903), along with anti-coercion measures that targeted groups such as the National Land League as “revolutionary.”

This carrot-and-stick approach adapted by British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone Gladstone, William Ewart [p]Gladstone, William Ewart;and Irish boycott[Irish boycott] after the land war of 1879-1881 did little to alleviate the growing political tensions in Ireland. However, the Boycott affair and Irish tenant-farmer agitation did draw Parliament’s attention to tenant rights, the conflict over rent prices, and the right of farmers to sell their lease. The Boycott affair emphasized the close ties between Irish nationalism and the Irish land question during the late nineteenth century.

The social practice of boycotting became a powerful, worldwide instrument for disenfranchised social and ethnic groups through the twentieth century. The practice of passive resistance posited an alternative, peaceful means to gain social, political, and economic objectives, or to at least bring attention to particular grievances.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bew, Paul. Land and the National Question in Ireland, 1858-1882. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1978. A critique of Irish tenant farmer organizations and the multiple internal divisions in Irish land reform movements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Samuel. Social Origins of the Irish Land War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. An analysis of the socioeconomic structures in late nineteenth century Ireland and the origins of “collective action” campaigns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jordan, Donald E., Jr. Land and Popular Politics in Ireland: County Mayo from the Plantation to the Land War. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A long-term analysis of tenant farmer organization and political activity in County Mayo. The most specific work dealing with the foundation of the Mayo Tenants League and socioeconomic conditions in County Mayo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marlow, Joyce. Captain Boycott and the Irish. London: Andre Deutsch, 1973. The most detailed narrative of Charles Boycott’s career and the specific events of the “Boycott campaign” at Lough Mask Estate in 1880.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Day, Alan. Irish Home Rule, 1867-1921. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1998. An examination of the evolution within the Irish home rule movement and its relationship with other nationalist groups in Ireland. Includes timeline and glossary of terms.

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