By 1879 the effects of the land laws had driven the people of Ireland to a state of desperation.
Most of the land was held by absentee landlords and, through several years of crop failures, tenants unable to pay their rents were being evicted. Home rule had long been demanded from the British Parliament.
Now, in that year, under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, a National Land League was organized with an aim to force Parliament into the passage of bills that would, at least, ameliorate existing conditions. Parliament was slow to act.
In September of 1880, speaking before a gathering of tenants, Parnell advocated that ‘anyone who took over the land from which a tenant. had been evicted should bepunished “by isolating him from his kind as if he was a leper of old.” This policy was accepted and its scope immediately enlarged.
In County Mayo occurred the most notable test. The tenants upon the estates of the earl of Erne, unable to pay the rents charged to them, set up a lower scale which, if accepted, they felt that they could pay. The manager of the estates, however, Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, would not accept those figures.
In retaliation, the tenants applied the measures advocated by Parnell, but with more intense force. Not only did they refuse to gather the crops, but they forced his servants to leave him, tore down his fences so that cattle might enter, intercepted his mail and his food supplies, hooted him in the streets, hung him in effigy, and even threatened his life.
He was but the first to be subjected to such treatment; others received it soon after. But the intimidation practiced against Captain Boycott became so famous that within two months the newspapers of England were using his name to identify any such practices.
The term boycott became not only a new word in our own language, but was speedily adopted in the French, German, Russian, and Dutch languages.