How the Irish invented English, episode 1

Thursday April 27, 2006 @ 10:04 AM (UTC)

As all of you have doubtless gathered, I do love stories, whether true or wildly extrapolated; especially stories about language. I came across this in my audiobook, The Great Shame: and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World yesterday. Since it is not the first time such a word-origin story has crossed my brain, I felt moved to share it; and there will be at least one more, some time.

In the late 19th century, there was an Irish activist, Michael Davitt, who believed that the first step towards Irish well-being, let alone Irish independence, should be casting off the system of landlordism. As you may know, for hundreds of years, very few Irishmen owned their land; most were tenants on land owned by wealthy men, many of whom didn’t even live in Ireland. Many tenants faced summary eviction from land on which they’d grown up if the weather was harsh or there was a bad crop. Rents were often extremely high, and there was little or no means of recourse for tenants.

Davitt’s views took hold, and eventually a group was formed that brought together people from all spectra of Irish political thought and action, the Irish Land League. The Land League was committed to nonviolence, and the president of the Land League, Charles Stewart Parnell, had this advice about its means of action (vetoing a suggestion from the audience that transgressors should be shot):

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 market place, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him into a moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of his country as if he were the leper of old – you must show him your detestation of the crime he has committed. -September 19, 1880 Speech in Ennis, County Clare

As it happened, the first man upon whom this tactic was turned was not a man who took the place of an evicted tenant, but an evictor. The land agent of an absentee landlord, he not only refused a request from several tenants for a reduction in rents, but threw the impudent tenants out on their ears. When he tried to hire local labor to work the fields, no one would sign up; his stable workers stopped working and servants stopped serving. Store owners ignored him when he came to buy, and the postman apparently would not bring him his mail.

The man’s name? Captain Charles Cunningham…Boycott.

For more information about the Land League and its movers and shakers, consult the excellent articles at Wikipedia’s Land League entry. If the history of the Irish people and the Irish diaspora interests you, you may enjoy The Great Shame by Thomas Keneally.


If you haven’t already read it, I suspect you would really like “The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way” by Bill Bryson. It’s quite informative and entertaining as well.

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