originally published January 4, 2013
I devoted a couple of December articles to the curious phenomenon of eponyms, those nuggets of linguistic history in which a word enters our language, named for the soul responsible for its origin. I don’t know if I’ll ever be among the fortunate who have contributed their moniker to our language, though I fear that if I do, to ‘Marty’ will mean something embarrassing, like getting one’s head caught in a fence or something. Immortalization via eponym can be a double-edged sword.
Which brings me to today. This is a cautionary tale about a man who ended up on the sour side of eponymical fame. Whether he was a victim or fully deserving of his infamous slot in the dictionary, that’s up to you to decide. Allow me to unravel this tale, free of bias for you. For now, we’ll just call the guy ‘Charlie’.
Charlie was born in Norfolk, England in 1832. His family wasn’t among the snootiest of the elite, but they swam around the shallow end of that pool, a clear notch up from the middle class. Charlie did his time at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, hoping to land the sweetest gig in the English forces. I’m not sure precisely what it’s called, but it involves smoking one’s pipe a lot whilst growing a moustache so big you could name it.
He flunked out, possibly due to inadequate stubble, but still served in the army as a captain, partly due to his diligence and commitment to service, but mostly because his family paid £450 (roughly the equivalent of $50,000 today) to buy him the rank. That happened back before our system was ruined by socialism and Obamacare and the like. It was a good time to be rich.
While stationed in Dublin, Charlie met and married Anne Dunne. He decided to stay in Ireland, as he’d recently acquired a couple of convenient inheritances and he wanted to buy some land. Charlie and Anne ended up settling down in a pretty fancy spread:
This next part may surprise some of my younger readers – the Irish and the English have not always gotten along. In 1876 a survey was done on land ownership in Ireland, and it was found that almost all of it was owned by 0.2% of the population. In fact, 750 landlords owned literally half the country between them. Most of those guys had sluffed off to live in England, hiring agents to live on the property and collect rent from the peasant farmers who worked the fields.
Some of these farmers found the arrangement a trifle unfair. And while they had the potential votes to enact change, it wasn’t always easy to rile the poor to action. This is where the activists come in, guys like former journalist and gun-runner Michael Davitt.
Davitt was not alone; he had support in the form of Member of Parliament Charles Stewart Parnell, who was an active supporter of Irish independence. Davitt and Parnell were behind the movement that ended up making Charlie’s life miserable.
In 1873, Charlie moved to Lough Mask House near Ballinrobe in County Mayo. He was going to live on the massive estate belonging to Lord Erne, and also collect Lord Erne’s rent from all the tenant-farmers on the land. It was a sweet deal: Charlie had his own batch of crops, a robust influx of cash, and all he had to do was drop by a few homes once a month and collect rent. Or better still, hire someone to do that. He’d be happy, his family would be happy, and Lord Erne would be happy.
The farmers… not so much. They were fighting for the Three F’s: fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale. Lord Erne was not about to provide. He did, however, agree to a ten percent reduction in rent because of a lousy harvest. Sounds generous, but the poor folk were suffering, and all but two of his tenants insisted on a 25% reduction. Lord Erne said no, and Charlie was tasked with the nasty business of evicting eleven tenants.
A process server, flanked by seventeen cops, headed out one September morning in 1880 to serve eviction notices. The locals fought back, hurling rocks, mud and feces at the officials. Charles Stewart Parnell did not advocate violence, but felt there was a way to send a message to people like Charlie who – though he was just doing the job he’d been hired to do – was the face of “The Man” in County Mayo.
A large mob wandered onto Charlie’s property and advised all his staff that they’d best quit, lest something ‘unfortunate’ happen to them. Now, all reports state that Charlie was rather dickish with the people in his employ, treating them like underlings due to a genuine belief in the superiority of the ruling class to which he belonged. Whether that factored into it or not, it’s hard to say, but every one of his field hands, servants, and laborers took off.
(Even the three ass-wipers on his staff fled the grounds)
The local blacksmith, the local laundress, even the postman were ordered to stop providing their services to Charlie and his family. Shopkeepers refused to serve him, and Charlie had to travel to another town just to get food. He was present, but fully in exile.
Charlie wrote an extensive letter to The Times, outlining his ordeal. This drew a lot of attention to County Mayo, and a lot of attention to the plight of the people. In England, sympathy lay with their countryman. Even in Dublin, an effort was started by a letter in the Daily Express, proposing some fundraising to help get Charlie through the harvest season. The media leaped onto this, and came up with £2000.
William Edward Forster, the Chief Security for Ireland, didn’t want hundreds of armed men showing up on Charlie’s land to harvest his crops. Instead, a contingent of 50 unarmed men showed up and got the work done. They had to endure angry yelling protests by the townsfolk, but no violence ensued.
On November 27, Charlie and his family left the county. No driver would come pick him up, so an army ambulance and driver had to be used. Charlie returned to England, having lost a tremendous amount of money and earning himself a bunch of unwanted international fame for his ordeal. By the following February, major land reforms (including those Three F’s) were passed into law, along with something called the Coercion Act, preventing any future occurrence of what the folks in County Mayo did to Charlie the previous year.
As for Charlie, he lived out his days far from Ireland, and nowhere near the landlord-agent business. Also, he had the knowledge that his last name had become a non-erasable part of the English language. Poor Charles Cunningham Boycott would never be allowed to escape his past.