Captain Charles Boycott and the First Boycott

January 8, 2018 § 1 Comment

Last week I wrote a post about the conundrum we face in dealing with President Trump, hockey rumours, and global warming.  The basic problem is the response of us as individuals, and our feelings of powerlessness, vs. the fact that we can band together to form interest groups in response.  In the case of the latter, I always think of the original boycott.

The original boycott occurred in 1880 in County Mayo, Ireland.  Captain Charles Boycott lent his name to a campaign against him by the Irish Land League.  The Land League was a political organization in late 19th century Ireland with the goal of alleviating the plight of poor Irish tenant famers.  The League’s ultimate goal was to abolish the great landowners of Ireland to allow these poor tenant farmers to own the land they worked.  The Irish Land League was a central component in the radicalization of Catholic/Nationalist Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, following its mobilization by Daniel O’Connell in the first half of the century.  And this radicalization, of course, led ultimately to the Irish Revolution and Irish independence in the early 20th century.

In 1880, Boycott was the land agent for Lord Erne in Lough Mask, Co. Mayo.  He became the object of ire of the Land League due to his enthusiasm for evicting the poor tenant farmers of Erne’s land.  Thus, the League encouraged his employees (most of whom were Irish and Catholic, as opposed to the Englishman Boycott) to withdraw their labour.  And then the League and its supporters in Co. Mayo encouraged local merchants to not serve Boycott.  Of course, some merchants required some encouragement to participate, which the local peasantry was only happy to provide.

Boycott, frustrated by his treatment, wrote a letter complaining of his plight to the Times of London.  And the boycott became national (and international, the Irish diaspora in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand followed the news closely) news.  This led to an influx of reporters from London, who interviewed the locals and explained the issue (not always fairly) to the readers of the London papers.

With no one to serve him in the local stores, and no one to work for him, Boycott was forced to rely upon gangs of Orangemen, protected by the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Irish Constabulary, as well as the British Army, to harvest the crops.  In the end, it cost over £10,000 to harvest around £500 worth of crops.  The boycotters won, at least locally.

What was the long-term effect of the first boycott?  Not much, at least locally.  Boycott left Lord Erne’s service, but he was replaced by another agent.  And evictions continued apace around Ireland.  And the plight of tenant farmers did not improve all that much.

But, the first boycott was a symbolic victory.  It brought greater exposure for the Land League, though it was ultimately unsuccessful in its campaign for the Three Fs: fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure.  But, even then, the Land League was, as noted, part of the radicalization of Catholic Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, which led to the birth of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and, ultimately, the Irish Republican Army (the first one, led by Michael Collins, not the re-constituted IRA that was behind the Troubles in Northern Ireland).

So, ultimately, taken together with other events, the first boycott was ultimately successful.  And maybe this speaks to something else.  We seem to expect that our actions against whatever we see as oppressive to be immediately rewarded, which is no doubt a response to our general belief in immediate reward/punishment in our world today.  Our actions as individuals need to be part of a larger movement, and we need to be patient in that larger movement in order to effect change.

For example, where I live in Western Massachusetts, a collection of like-minded people have created a culture where creativity, tolerance, and inclusivity is central.  But this was’t created overnight.  While Western Massachusetts has a history of alternative subcultures and communities, our present culture was carefully and slowly created and reinforced over the past 30-40 years, beginning first down in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, and that has slowly crept up into the hilltowns on both side of the river valley.  In other words, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Place and Mobility

January 8, 2016 § 7 Comments

I’m reading a bit about theories of place right now.  And I’m struck by geographers who bemoan the mobility of the world we live, as it degrades place in their eyes. It makes our connections to place inauthentic and not real.  We spend all this time in what they call un-places: airports, highways, trains, cars, waiting rooms.  And we move around, we travel, we relocate.  All of this, they say, is degrading the idea of place, which is a location we are attached to and inhabit in an authentic manner.

I see where these kinds of geographers come from. I have spent a fair amount of my adult life in un-places.  I have moved around a lot.  In my adult life, I have lived in Vancouver, Ottawa, Vancouver again, Ottawa again, Montreal, Western Massachusetts, Boston, and now, Alabama.  If I were to count the number of flats I have called home, I would probably get dizzy.

And yet, I have a strong connection to place.  I am writing this in my living room, which is the room I occupy the most (at least whilst awake and conscious) in my home.  It is my favourite room and it is carefully curated to make it a comfortable, inviting place for me.  It is indeed a place. And yet, I have only lived here for six months.  In fact, today is six months sine I moved into this house.  I have a similar connection to the small college town I live in.  And the same goes for my university campus.

So am I different than the people these geographers imagine flitting about the world in all these un-places, experiencing inauthentic connections to their locales?  Am I fooled into an inauthentic connection to my places? I don’t think so.  And I think I am like most people.  Place can be a transferrable idea, it can be mobile.  Our place is not necessarily sterile.  It seems to me that a lot of these geographers are also overlooking the things that make a place a place: our belongings, our personal relationships to those who surround us, or own selves and our orientation to the world.

Sure, place is mobile in our world, but that does not mean that place is becoming irrelevant as these geographers seem to be saying.  Rather, it means that place is mobile.  Place is by nature a mutable space.  Someone else called this house home before me. This house has been here since 1948.  But that doesn’t mean that this is any less a place to me.

Western Massachusetts and Place

January 22, 2015 § 6 Comments

I’m teaching a course on space, place, landscape, and memory this semester.  To get us thinking about these things, I have my students reading this article from the Boston Globe last week.  In it, the author, llison Lobron, claims that Bostonians don’t care about Western Massachusetts.  This isn’t exactly news, Western Mass is another world from the Boston region, and this has been blatantly obvious going back to the Revolutionary Era and Daniel Shays’ Rebellion in Springfield in 1786.  There are still bullet holes in the Springfield Armory from Shays’ Revolt, apparently.

Anyway. Lobron goes on to make a claim that Western Mass is really more attuned to New York City than Boston, that there are more Giants and Yankees caps than Patriots and Red Sox caps where she lives, in Great Barrington, etc. Her TV stations come from Albany, NY, not Boston.   (It’s also interesting that, in 2012, Lobron claimed that Great Barrington was “Cambridge with more time.” She is, after all, a transplanted Bostonian) I find this an interesting argument in a lot of way, given that she is essentialising Western Mass as a whole based on her experience in Great Barrington.  My experiences in the Hilltowns of Western Mass and the Pioneer Valley say otherwise.  Here, the Red Sox and Patriots are the main teams; here, the “city” is Boston, not New York, for the most part.  TV stations here are Boston-based, too.  She claims that where she lives, it’s easier to get your hands on the New York Times than the Boston Globe.  Here, they’re about equal.

So what? So, it is incredibly difficult to generalise about space and region, apparently.  Great Barrington is about 60 miles southwest of where I’m sitting in Amherst right now.  Amherst is about 90 miles from Boston.  Great Barrington, on the other hand is about 140 miles away, which is, coincidentally, the distance from Great Barrington to New York City, but it’s only 45 miles to Albany.

Lobron is correct, I think, when she notes that for most people in the Boston region, the world ends just to the west of Worcester.  She is right to note that the state government in Boston generally ignores the western part of the state (I would add that it tends to ignore the central part, too).  Newly-installed Governor Charlie Baker, for example, has no one from Western Mass in his cabinet or transition team.  Plus ça change, says I.  Even when Martha Coakley, who lost to Baker in the November election, was in power in Governor Deval Patrick’s team, despite her Western Mass roots, focused more on her adopted home of Cambridge, than her hometown of Pittsfield.

But.  What I take away from Lobron’s article more than anything is that place tends to mean an intensely thing; our “place” is tightly bounded, and generalisations like “Western Mass” or “Central Mass” really don’t mean much in the larger scheme, because the 60 miles that separate my office at UMass-Amherst from Lobron in Great Barrington are huge, just as huge as the 90 miles between here and Boston.  Somewhere between here and Great Barrington, on the other side of Springfield and the I-91 corridor, Massachusetts becomes Eastern New York.

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