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Apr 4, 2019

Captain Boycott

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Today, activists routinely use boycotts to apply moral and financial pressure to targets ranging from Gucci to Nike, the Super Bowl to the state of Israel. But before there could be boycotts, someone had to invent the word “boycott.” Reveal’s Stan Alcorn reports the story of the man whose name became synonymous with a new form of protest: Capt. Charles Cunningham Boycott.

Credits

This show was produced by Stan Alcorn and edited by Jen Chien.

Special thanks to Diarmuid McIntyre and Brian Casey.

Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz and Katherine Rae Mondo.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. This is the sound of rapper 50 Cent lighting a Gucci T-shirt on fire.

 

50 Cent: Woo, my hand is getting hot.

 

Al Letson: This was after Gucci put out a black sweater with big red lips that looked a lot like blackface. 50 Cent and other celebrities like, rapper TI were calling for a boycott.

 

TI: We don't have to force them to like us, but what we do have to do is stop spending our mother (bleep) money with people who are going to continue to give you their ass to kiss.

 

Al Letson: It's been a big year for boycotts from Gucci to Starbucks, Nike to the Super Bowl, and it got us thinking, where does the word boycott come from anyway? So we started looking into it. Turns out it goes back to one man, Charles Cunningham Boycott, a.k.a. Captain Boycott.

 

Al Letson: He was an Englishman living in Ireland in the late 1800s, when all of Ireland was ruled by England, and the Irish countryside was divided in a way that was almost medieval. You had poor peasants who lived off the land, and then you had rich landlords who owned the land. Captain Boycott was right in the middle. Reveal reporter, Stan Alcorn has his story.

 

Stan Alcorn: Captain Boycott was barely a captain. His parents bought him a spot in the British Army. He quit after just two years at age 20. He spent the rest of his life farming, horse racing, and doing the job that would make him famous, collecting rent as the agent for a landlord who owned 2,000 acres on Ireland's West Coast.

 

Stan Alcorn: I wanted to see that land, the stone houses and boggy fields, for myself. But, my boss wouldn't pay for the plane ticket, so instead I started calling up people who lived there. I found a lot of them know the story of Captain Boycott as part of their family history.

 

Elaine K.: Hi, it's Elaine. How you doing?

 

Stan Alcorn: Elaine [Knockton's] ancestors were farmers who paid rent to Boycott.

 

Elaine K.: My grandmother used to always say, "There were hard times, but nobody knew any better," because everything was very equal back then. If you were running short on milk one day, you knew you could go to the neighbor, and you'd be given milk, and in exchange, you'd give back eggs the following day. Everybody wanted the same thing for everybody else. They just wanted a fair rent.

 

Stan Alcorn: But, what seemed fair to farmers depended on the harvest. In 1879, the potato crop was the worst in the decade. There were reports of starvation, and a fear that the great famine that had killed one out of every 10 people in Ireland just a generation earlier was about to repeat itself.

 

Stan Alcorn: Captain Boycott's tenants got together and sent a message to his mansion, the Lough Mask House, asking him to lower the rent by 25%. Boycott said no. He had the local process server, that's basically the official court messenger, start serving them with eviction papers. He went house to house with an armed guard of 18 police officers.

 

Elaine K.: What seemed to have kicked it off was when they tried to deliver, or they did deliver an eviction notice to a widow.

 

Stan Alcorn: According to the local paper the widow told them, "You'll not serve my house as long as I have life in my body."

 

Elaine K.: The story goes that she had a red flag, and once she raised the red flag all the women and children came out from behind the bushes, and basically just started pelting the process server with stones, and drove him the whole way back to the Lough Mask House.

 

Stan Alcorn: The next day, a crowd of maybe 100 men, women, and children swarmed a hill near Boycott's house. It looked like things were about to get violent.

 

Elaine K.: Yeah, and from my understanding I think Father John O'Malley kept control on this.

 

Stan Alcorn: If anyone could control the crowd it was Father John O'Malley, the parish priest whose influence you can see in the rough limestone church he built where today Father [Paddy Gilligan 00:04:10] has taken his place.

 

Paddy G.: [inaudible 00:04:12].

 

Stan Alcorn: On the wall next to the alter, there is a small bronze plaque for Father John O'Malley.

 

Paddy G.: Very simple, he will be forever remembered as a faithful priest, and a defender of his people's rights in very hard and trying time. I'd say that, that was certainly the mood of the people.

 

Stan Alcorn: Can you compare the role that he played in the community at that time with the role that you play now?

 

Paddy G.: Well, it will be to contrast rather than compare, I think.

 

Stan Alcorn: While Father Gilligan speaks gently about building community, Father O'Malley gave fiery speeches warning that landlords wanted to annihilate the Irish people. He was the local leader of a political movement sweeping the Irish countryside called, The Land League that saw the fight for the rights of Irish farmers as the first battle in a war for Irish independence. But, he didn't want it to be an actual war.

 

Paddy G.: Around that time there were quite a number of incidents where the agents of landlords who were trying to collect rent were actually murdered, so he tried to persuade them to make their protests, but to make it peacefully.

 

Stan Alcorn: He had a specific protest tactic in mind, one that had just been laid out in a speech by the president of The Land League, Charles Stuart Parnell. His speech was reenacted in that 1947 movie, Captain Boycott. At the speech's climax, Parnell asked the crowd, "If a landlord evicts a farmer, what should you do if another farmer helps the landlord by taking over the evicted man's lease?"

 

Actor: I think I heard somebody say, "Shoot him." There is a very much better way, a more Christian and charitable way. You must shun him. Shun him on the roadside when you meet him, in the streets of the town, in the shop, on the fair green, and in the marketplace, and even in the house of worship by isolating him from his kind as if he were a leper of old. If you do this, you may depend upon it. There will be no man so lost to shame as to dare to face the cold accusing finger of public scorn.

 

Stan Alcorn: Scorn and shunning, these were the weapons of The Land League. Father O'Malley helped convince his parish to use them on Captain Boycott.

 

Elaine K.: Apparently, he'd be walking down the street and he'd be shunned.

 

Stan Alcorn: Elaine Knockton again.

 

Elaine K.: No one spoke to him. The postmen refused to deliver his posts. Every single person participated in it. He was completely left on his own down there.

 

Stan Alcorn: The blacksmith wouldn't shoe his horses. The baker wouldn't bake him bread. Not only did the farmers refuse to pay him rent for their land, they wouldn't do any work on Captain Boycott's farm, which left him with acres of potatoes and turnips that were about to rot in the ground until, in a plot twist in the movie version that also really happened, Boycott wrote a letter to The Times of London where he found a more sympathetic English audience.

 

Speaker 8: Extraordinary letter here, Humphrey, A fellow called, Boycott out in the West of Ireland can't get his harvest in.

 

Humphrey: It seems his laborers have left him in a [inaudible 00:07:44].

 

Stan Alcorn: As Boycott's story spread, 50 British loyalists from Northern Ireland volunteered to come help with the harvest. The British Government chipped in with an armed guard of hundreds of British soldiers.

 

Speaker 10: Didn't I tell you the landlord would fight to the last drop of the other fellow's sweat?

 

Stan Alcorn: Reporters came from all across Europe to watch them dig up Captain Boycott's tubers. The so-called, Boycott relief expedition worked, but it was expensive.

 

Elaine K.: It made no sense. It's reported to have cost 5,000 pound to save 500 Euros worth of crop.

 

Stan Alcorn: Boycott couldn't afford another harvest like that, so when the army left, so did he. The shunning had worked.

 

Elaine K.: It was quite simple, but effective.

 

Stan Alcorn: As Captain Boycott fled, the word boycott was just getting started. Credit for coining it typically goes to two men, Father John O'Malley and James [Redpath 00:08:45], an American journalist. According to local lore, it happened a short muddy walk from Father O'Malley's church in a house that's now a stone ruin covered in lichen and ivy.

 

Joe Grainy: Stoop down when you come in.

 

Stan Alcorn: [Joe Grainy 00:09:01] was born in this house, as was his mother, and his grandmother, and his great-grandmother.

 

Joe Grainy: Now, we're going into what used to be the kitchen.

 

Stan Alcorn: He believes a great-aunt of his rented a room to Father O'Malley.

 

Joe Grainy: And right sitting here in this room inside that window is where Father O'Malley would sleep because that was the bedroom when I was a child where my grandfather and grandmother would sleep. And left to that was a little pantry, we called it, where we left a bag of flour, or an old wet coats, and the dog slept in it, et cetera, et cetera. And if you look, there is one stone there at angle with a lovely little turn on it. That is most likely the stone they were sitting at the day that Father O'Malley used the word.

 

Stan Alcorn: In Joe's telling, Father O'Malley was talking to the journalist about another landlord, a man named Brown.

 

Joe Grainy: "Let's get Brown. Let's do what they did to Boycott. Let's do a boycott job on this Brown. That's what we're going to do. We're going to boycott Brown." That's the stone that they were most likely sitting at exactly at that fireplace in there.

 

Stan Alcorn: Boycott was catchy. Father O'Malley saw that by putting it in the newspaper, James Redpath the journalist, could help it catch on all across the country like a 19th century hashtag.

 

Deermit M.: He saw him as the modern day Twitterer, or the then Facebook where I can get our message from this little village to the world.

 

Stan Alcorn: A year later, there had been more than 1,000 recorded cases of boycotting in Ireland, with tenant farmers winning millions of pounds in lower rents. A year after that, the word boycott was in the dictionary in the US, and it was being used in France, The Netherlands, Germany, and Russia. In the place the word was born people are proud of this history, but not everyone. I asked local producer, [Dearmit McIntyre 00:10:52] to knock on the door of Captain Boycott's old mansion.

 

Deermit M.: Hello, there. I'm with an American radio station.

 

Stan Alcorn: The current occupant is the grandson of the man who moved in after Captain Boycott left. His name is John [Daily 00:11:09]. He's nearly 90. He has a descending view on Boycott.

 

John Daily: They say he was a good fellow, and a jolly fellow.

 

Deermit M.: I have to say, you're the first person I've ever met who said that he seems to have been a nice guy because [crosstalk] the story that he'd want to beat you with-

 

John Daily: I remember when I was going to school, and first thing the teacher said, "Boycott was a bad man. He wanted the money from the tenants, and he was this, and he was nothing." But, he was an Adolf Hitler according to the teacher, but I couldn't see that at all. It could happen to anyone today.

 

Stan Alcorn: To John Daily, Captain Boycott was just doing his job working for the landlord.

 

Deermit M.: Was it fair what happened to him?

 

John Daily: Well, I wouldn't think it was fair, but it was, if you like, a sign of the times. That's the way it was. We were taking over, mob law, if you like.

 

Stan Alcorn: This view that boycotts are a threat to the rule of law was there from the beginning. Britain's prime minister at the time called boycotting, "Intimidation for the purposes for destroying the private liberty of choice by fear of ruin and starvation." And it wasn't just the English.

 

Stan Alcorn: The first judicial opinion in the US to use the word boycott. In 1887, upheld the charge of criminal conspiracy for passing out leaflets for a boycott against a publishing company. The judge called the boycott, "A power outside of law," and said that, "Like the taste of human blood by tigers, it creates an unappeasable appetite for more."

 

Stan Alcorn: Part of why the original Irish boycotters are mostly seen as heroes today, and not blood thirsty tigers is that mob law eventually became actual law. A few decades later, Ireland won its independence, and the new Irish state took farmland away from absentee landlords and gave it to their old tenants. The few acres of the old boycott estate went to Elaine Knockton's family.

 

Elaine K.: My mother's family would own some of it. And then, the majority of the land then around it is all owned by neighbors.

 

Stan Alcorn: Elaine is proud of her ancestors, but she's never taken part in a boycott herself.

 

Elaine K.: I haven't had need to yet, so not yet.

 

Stan Alcorn: What do you think it would take to make you join in a boycott?

 

Elaine K.: What would it take? Well, I suppose if it was coming to a point where I was losing my home, and people around me were losing their homes then certainly yeah, you can imagine starting some kind of revolution, or a boycott, or whatever. I just don't think you'd know where to start today.

 

Stan Alcorn: People are losing their homes today. It's just that it's often some international bank doing the evicting, and what do they care if one small town shuns them, or stops paying rent. But then again, small town shunning that's not what most boycotts are today. Instead, they're people all over the world making individual gestures of solidarity that they hope add up to something greater. The word is the same, but the boycott, like the world, has changed.

 

Al Letson: That was Reveal's Stan Alcorn with help from producer Deermit MacIntyre in Ireland. Special thanks to Brian Casey. The piece was edited by Jen Chien. Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Katherine Raymondo and Kaitlin Benz. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightning.

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation, and The Ethics in Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.