Mr Owen Farrell, the famous ‘Irish dwarf’.

Times Past: Captain Maxwell’s ‘boycott’ relief effort of 1880

Historian Jonathan Smyth looks at how, in 1880, Captain Somerset Maxwell organised and led a relief expedition from counties Cavan and Monaghan to save the harvest on Charles Boycott’s Co Mayo farm, which was under ‘boycott’ by the Land League.

To boycott or not to boycott? is a question that Shakespeare might well have asked, had the term ‘boycott’ been around in his day.

The term ‘boycott’, means to protest by ostracisation using non-violent means, for example people would withdraw support for a person or organisation, refusing to purchase their goods or to carry out work for them. All over the world, from France to the United States of America people now use the word boycott. In 1880, Captain Somerset Maxwell, later to become the 10th Baron of Farnham (in 1896), organised and led a relief expedition from counties Cavan and Monaghan to save the harvest on Charles Boycott’s Co Mayo farm which was under ‘boycott’ by the Land League.

The term boycott was named after the said Charles Boycott, an Englishman who came to Ireland with the 39th Foot. When Boycott retired from the army, he became land agent for Lord Erne, at Lough Mask, Co Mayo. On the Lough Mask estate, as land agent, he was mean and cruel, imposing the collection of the high rents charged by Lord Erne. For those too impoverished to pay, the land agent relished in evicting the defenceless poor from their homes, leaving them to survive along the roadside.

The Land League was founded in October 1879 by Michael Davitt, the son of an evicted farmer who with support of Charles Stewart Parnell, began a campaign for the three ‘Fs’, that is, fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale. In a bid to seek landlord reforms, the Land League was active in protest and it was Charles Boycott’s farm, which became a test case for their policy of ostracisation; land agent Boycott rented and farmed one thousand acres of land, on the Lough Mask estate. One hundred men were sent to Boycott’s farm to intimidate. His workers who were poorly paid departed and tenants living on his land requested a 25% reduction in their rent.

However, some staff remained on the farm, rising at four o’clock each morning, in a vain attempt to complete all the tasks. After the visitation to Boycott, the men were congratulated by Fr O’Malley, local curate, who was said to have coined the term ‘boycott’, which he thought would be a more memorable word than ostracise.

Captain Maxwell who was unionist in outlook, thought the whole Boycott affair to be an intolerable situation and believed it was his duty to help. However, Maxwell also had his eye on an upcoming election contest for Co Cavan and saw an opportunity for publicity.

Soon, Maxwell and a relief expedition of 50 men, mainly drawn from the ranks of the Orange Order in Cavan and Monaghan, set off for Lough Mask. Living conditions for the men were rough and they initially slept in outhouses on Boycott’s land. An interesting eyewitness account of the relief provided to Charles Boycott is recorded in the book, ‘Disturbed Ireland: Being the Letters Written during the Winter of 1880-81’, by Bernard Henry Becker.

According to Becker, ‘it may be imagined that the picked men of Monaghan are not very pleased at playing second fiddle to an electioneering scheme’.

However, the ‘Ulster men’ were hard working and he records that, ‘they displayed a great deal of earnestness at Lough Mask House this morning’, adding that, ‘in the midst of a hurricane a large number of them went bravely out to a potato field and worked with a conscience at getting out the national vegetables, which ran a risk of being completely spoiled by the rain.’

Others in the rescue party were observed in a barn, threshing ‘Mr Boycott’s oats’ with a ‘Tiny’ threshing machine. As to the ‘opinion’ of Mr Boycott, we are told, he exhibited ‘no profuse gratitude towards the officious persons who have come to help him, thinking probably that he would have been nearly as well without them. Thanks to his obstructive assistants he is almost overwhelmed with sympathisers gifted by nature with tremendous appetites’.

For his own safety, Boycott stayed away from Lough Mask for 12 months until the anger subsided.

When the Cavan branch of the Land League met under chairman Gannon in December 1880, they were presumably peeved over the gallant Captain Somerset Maxwell’s rescue expedition of Boycott’s produce.

An editorial in this newspaper in the same month, criticised those who opposed boycotting. A relative of Maxwell, the 9th Lord Farnham responded toThe Anglo-Celt’sletter in a reply, which was published in the Cavan Weekly News in January 1881.

Farnham wrote: ‘Shame on you, Mr Editor (The Anglo-Celt), that you devote more than two columns of your last paper to a vituperative attack on me and yet not find within your breast a heart to dictate one word to your editorial pen in the way of arraignment or condemnation of this accursed system of terrorism, or of the uplifting arm of the Irish Land League to put forth its gigantic power, with such huge effect, to unhinge the everyday domestic and commercial arrangements of man with man.’

I imagine that Lord Farnham was not best pleased.



On July 22nd, 1888, ‘The Memphis Daily Appeal’, published an article titled ‘Miniature Men’, which listed a selection of people celebrated for being of very low stature. Amongst the famous ‘dwarves’ listed in the American paper, there was Owen Farrell from Cavan who stood at a height of ‘three feet nine inches’. Farrell had been a footman for a colonel in Dublin and thereafter began to publicly exhibit himself, travelling to London, as the ‘Irish Dwarf’.

Although small, he had the strength of two men and apparently could carry four men at once, with two seated on each arm.

A surgeon later offered Farrell a weekly pittance in return for his body when he died. Farrell died in 1742, and his skeleton now resides in the ‘Museum of the University of Glasgow’.

Other men mentioned in ‘The Memphis Daily Appeal’, include Prince Colobri of Schleswig, at 25 inches; Bebe, two feet, nine inches; General Tom Thumb, 25 inches; and Sir Geoffrey Hudson, 18 inches(1619-1678). Also mentioned, were two dwarves, then aged 50 years old, in the employ of P.T. Barnum (the Greatest Showman). They were billed by Barnum as the ‘Wild Men of Borneo’.


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