Facebook and Captain Boycott

Given the growing commercial boycott of Facebook as a result of the swelling volumes of hate speech and misinformation, I thought people might be interested in the story of where the word ‘boycott’ actually comes from. In some ways, it’s actually quite a funny story.

Needless to say, it was from Ireland:

 

The Story of Captain Boycott

In 1870, almost eighty percent of all the land in Ireland was owned by the descendants of British colonists, most of them absentee landlords who hired Land Agents to manage their properties to ensure the maximum ‘dividends’ were transferred back to their owners in the ‘home country’. The native Irish, meanwhile, were often obliged to make a living by leasing their old ancestral lands (annually), a task hampered by the fact that at least 50% consisted of holdings less than fifteen acres in size. The hardships that this caused led to great tension, a situation inflamed by the risk of famine and  the behaviour of predatory Land Agents who pitilessly instigated rack-renting and mass evictions to make a bigger profit for their masters.

In an attempt to counter these injustices, a political organisation called ‘The Land League’ was established in 1879 by individuals including Charles Parnell, Andrew Kettle, Michael Davitt and others. This organisation hoped to improve the lot of poor tenant farmers by abolishing landlordism in Ireland and enabling those farmers to buy the land they worked on over time.  Soon after its establishment, during a famous speech in Ennis (on September 19, 1880), Charles Parnell proposed that individuals who took the farms of evicted tenants should be ostracized by the community rather than resorting to violence.

Several years earlier, Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott (a retired British army captain) took the position of Land Agent for John Crichton, 3rd earl of Erne near the Neale in Co. Mayo (a block consisting of about 2,184 acres). As the Land Agent, Boycott was responsible for ensuring a regular profit from the land (which included collecting rent from 35 tenant families),a task he did for several years.

In 1880, due to poor harvests, many of the tenant farmers in Mayo were simply unable to pay their rent and sought relief from Lord Erne (though Boycott). Lord Erne offered a ten percent reduction but the protesting tenants pleaded for a twenty five percent reduction, which Lord Erne refused. With the tenants unable to pay, Boycott immediately attempted to evict eleven tenant families from the land.

When the alarm was raised about the evictions however, the Land League’s new tactics were applied and Boycott soon found himself socially, and professionally, isolated, unable to obtain labourers to work on his lands or to access local services (as businesses refused to trade with him). At night, huge damage was carried out on the farm’s infrastructure with equipment broken, trees felled and various crops stolen or destroyed. To make matters worse, the heightened tensions meant Boycott and his supporters had to be escorted anywhere they travelled, by armed police.

This concerted action proved remarkably effective and soon Boycott was reduced to writing a letter in the London Times (on 14 October 1880) to seek assistance to harvest his substantial turnip crop. He subsequently received support from the Dublin Daily Express (controlled and predominantly read by his peers and other members of the Protestant Ascendency who were concerned at the Land League’s success). This helped to establish a fund to help save Boycott’s crops and a ‘Boycott Relief Expedition’.

Although Boycott only required ten to twelve men to harvest his turnip crop, during the first week of November, 50 volunteers from the Ulster ‘Boycott Relief Expedition’ (predominantly made up of Orangemen volunteers from Cavan and Monaghan), arrived at Claremorris railway station to ‘get in the Captain’s turnips’. Arriving on a particularly stormy day, the volunteers (and the large company of soldiers escorting them), had to walk all the way to Boycott’s land in driving rain as none of the local drivers would transport them. There, over the next two weeks, housed in tents on the lawns and guarded by several hundred soldiers, they harvested the turnips. During that time however, a large number of sheep, fowl and other foodstuffs ‘disappeared’ and Boycott’s carefully manicured gardens were trampled to a muddy quagmire. By the time the ‘volunteers’ and the soldiers left (27 November 1880), the crop (worth less than £350 at market) had cost the English Crown and other financial interests almost £10,000 to harvest.

In December 1880, unable to sustain the financial losses and the damage to his reputation, Boycott sold his house and left Ireland. The affair in Mayo made headlines and by the end of 1880, the word ‘boycotting’ had spread throughout Ireland and overseas. Twenty years later, the word appeared as a verb in English dictionaries

Ancient Ireland: In The Scheme of Things

When you’re dealing with Irish mythology, Irish history, Irish archaeology and so on, one of the more difficult concepts to get across to people is that our ancestors back in the day were just as smart as we were. In contemporary societies, there’s a general assumption that OUR society is going to continue indefinitely, without any major change. There’s also a common, generally unarticulated, belief, that we’re far smarter or more advanced because ancient societies didn’t have science or believed in a whole bunch of ‘mumbo-jumbo’ religions.

The reality, of course, is that this simply isn’t true and one obvious example of our ancestor’s abilities are the passage tomb clusters spread around Ireland at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange), Knowth, Loughcrew etc. These passage tombs were incredibly complex edifices that not only required huge structural design, engineering and architectural ability but social organisational skills and in-depth knowledge of astronomy (not to mention the artistic design skills that can still observed to this day).

Complex edifices like the passage grave clusters required a stable and organised society to build them. In practical terms, for example, it’s estimated that the main passage grave at Brú na Bóinne could have been completed over a sixteen-year period provided there was a well-managed workforce of over four hundred people (who ceased other agricultural activities for two months of every year – probably after the seasonal sowing of crops etc.). Such a workforce, however, could only have existed if they formed part of a much larger, secure and organised society. Like many other preceding and subsequent societies, the society that built Brú na Bóinne is now long gone, of course, but the physical remains of their achievements and aspirations still impress us today.

If we look at contemporary Irish society, the only true advantage we have over our ancestors is that we’re more technologically advanced. Unfortunately, technology is not an effective measure of societal health (science and technology doesn’t make our human behaviour any better, it simply amplifies the impact of our behaviour – good or bad). The true problem for societies is that, at heart, humanity doesn’t really change. Many people within our modern-day populations are just as arrogant, just as misinformed, just as selfish, just as power hungry and just as self-destructive as the people within ancient societies and, unfortunately, it’s people’s behaviour that decides the longevity of a culture.

It’s more than likely that the people who built the passage grave complexes at Brú na Bóinne and Knowth had the same condescending opinion as us for those who’d gone before them, for that certainly seems to be a consistent human failing. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to imagine what people will make or our contemporary edifices when they excavate the ruins in another thousand years or so.

Surviving Christmas And an Irish ‘Sword’ Film

If you ever decide to invade New Zealand, I’d really recommend you do so over the Christmas period. Because of the fact that the Christmas holidays here take place in the middle of summer, you essentially end up with a double-whammy of a summer holiday and everything – everything! – comes to a complete halt for several days.

I love New Zealand during this period. Even if you wanted to work (and, hell, I’ve already got a crippling work schedule!) it’s actually quite hard to do so. And that’s not just because of the sun beckoning in through the window every morning.

In Wellington, we’ve had an amazing few weeks of sun this year, despite a harsh winter that dangled us by the short and curlies for several months. I had great plans to achieve a great many things but, in the end, I just gave in and went with the flow and feel so much better for that!

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In between eating, running, drinking and reading I also surfed the internet for an extended period and one of the little gems I came across was this interesting mini-film on You Tube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYAcYNg64UY ). Called ‘The Last Grasp’, it’s a short film project by Claíomh Productions (Claíomh is the Irish word for sword). To quote from their website, “Claíomh are an Irish military ‘living history’ group that re-create ‘live’ images of the country’s past, particularly related to the turbulent late medieval to early modern history period”. I’m personally more interested in the pre- [pre-5th century] history, myself but these guys stuff has always impressed me.

The film itself is about four years old or so. It’s pretty short with a limited story-line but I do like the camera work and the attention to detail, which marks the company’s fantastic research and high production values. More recently they did some reproduction work for 1916 so I’ll be interested to see what they get up to during the centenary events. Their Facebook page (here: ) has a number of photos which display their work and I’d highly recommend a visit.