Next Boycott, Blame the Irish

Sometimes being a word nerd is just too much fun.

I’m reading The Years by Virginia Woolf right now. It’s the story of the Pargiter family, from 1880 to the 1930s.Most of the novel is about this fictional family, but occasionally there are historical references, to kings and queens and such.

In a few brief sentences in the section in 1891, I read that the eldest daughter, Eleanor, is on the London streets, and learns from newspapers that “Parnell” has died, and she is “dazed.” In the next passage, her father, Colonel Partiger, also reads the paper. His thoughts? “He’s dead – that unscrupulous adventurer – that agitator who had done all that mischief, that man….How had he died? Had he killed himself? It wouldn’t be surprising. Anyhow he was dead and that was an end of it.”

The Colonel is on his way to visit his sister-in-law, Eugenie, who it appears he favors. Upon arriving, he tells her the news. Her reaction is quite different. “Poor thing.”

“Poor thing?” he repeated. Her eyes were full of tears. He was puzzled. Did she mean Kitty O’Shea? He hadn’t thought of her.

“She ruined his career for him,” he said with a little snort.

“Ah, but how she must have loved him!” she murmured.

Well, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit this, but I had no idea who the heck Parnell was. And I was intrigued. Obviously, the man elicited some controversial opinions in his time. So, off to Google. On the BBC website, I learned that Charles Parnell (1846-1891) was born into a family of Anglo-Irish Protestant landowners. He was elected to Parliament in 1875 as a member of the Home Rule League (later re-named by Parnell the Irish Parliamentary Party), and became an active opponent of the Irish land laws. By 1880, he had become the accepted leader of the Irish nationalist movement. Here’s where he became troublesome. He joined with the Liberals to defeat the Conservatives, and Gladstone became prime minister, supporting the first Irish Home Rule Bill, but that bill split the Liberal Party, and Gladstone’s government fell soon after. Parnell encouraged peaceful protests; however, members of 0an Irish terrorist group murdered two British officials in Dublin. Parnell condemned the act – but in 1887, the Times published a letter which supposedly had his signature, excusing the murders. When it was proved a forgery, Parnell became a hero. All that fell apart shortly after, when his long-time supporter, William O’Shea, filed for divorce from his wife Kitty O’Shea, on the grounds of adultery. She had been Parnell’s mistress for a number of years. The scandal split the party again, and Parnell was replaced. He died soon after.

OK, then. Now I had context for my Virginia Woolf reading. I knew why Eleanor the activist supported Parnell, why the Colonel thought him a rabble-rouser, and why Eugenie believed him a “poor thing,” and what the scandalĀ  lay behind his ultimate demise.

But – and here’s the fun part – in this search, I discovered something entirely unexpected. The origin of the word boycott.

On the History Learning site, the entry on Charles Parnell describes how he worked for his long-term goal, that the farmers of Ireland could own their own land. In 1880, Parnell said:

When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him, you must shun him in the streets of the town, you must shun him in the shop, you must shun him in the fairgreen and in the marketplace, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in a moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of his country as if he were the leper of old, you must show your detestation of the crime he has committed.

This “shunning” was used against a land agent whose name was Boycott – and so “boycotting” came to be used as a word to describe the tactic prescribed by Parnell and his followers.

And that, gentle readers, means that when we boycott Cuban cigars or Iraqi oil, we are following the example of a 19th Century Irishman who battled for land rights.

I must admit, I feel kind of sorry for Mr. Boycott…I’m sure he wasn’t the nicest guy around. But becoming a household word with a negative meaning – ouch! That’s harsh. Just goes to show. Gotta watch yourself. Never know when you might end up in the dictionary.

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