Captain Boycott, Coventry and the origins of cancel culture

Captain Boycott by Spy, Vanity Fair 1881

Cancel culture is a hot topic in today’s world. It’s seen as a product of our aggressive, confrontational online society, with its culture wars.

But cancel culture is likely to have been a feature of life since early humans started living in communities. This thought only struck me when my son Owen was researching for a school talk on cancel culture. My mind went back to a class room at Cardiff High School, Wales, in 1979, and a lesson on British and Irish history with our wonderful O level teacher, Dr Davies. Back then, the name ‘Boycott’ was associated with cricket: the Yorkshire cricketer Geoffrey Boycott was in his pomp, having completed his 100th first-class century two years before. Dr Davies told us of another Boycott, who gave his name to the English language after he was ‘boycotted’ by a community in the west of Ireland in the 1880s. In other words, he was cancelled.

Charles Boycott was the agent of Lord Erne, a hated landowner in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. After Erne refused to accept the tenants’ plea for more affordable rents, Boycott tried to evict them. The community was outraged, and pressured people working for Boycott and local shops to refuse to deal with him. Boycott wrote a letter to The Times in London, which created sensational news stories around the world. Boycott left Ireland in disgrace soon after.

“The shopkeepers have been warned to stop all supplies to my house, and I have just received a message from the postmistress to say that the telegraph messenger was stopped and threatened on the road when bringing out a message to me and that she does not think it safe to send any telegrams which may come for me in the future for fear they should be abstracted and the messenger injured. My farm is public property; the people wander over it with impunity. My crops are trampled upon, carried away in quantities, and destroyed wholesale.

extract From charles boycott’s letter to the times, 14 october 1880

Essay in Irish history: my O level mock history paper, Cardiff High School, 1979

The treatment of Boycott gave a huge boost to the campaign for justice for Ireland’s rural tenants. Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom, and prime minister William Gladstone recognised that solving the land question was critical if he was to achieve his mission of ‘pacifying Ireland’. Parliament passed an Irish land act within months, in 1881, meeting the demand for the ‘three Fs’: fixed tenure, fair rents, and free sale of leases. A long-ago example of how cancel culture can force dramatic, historic reform.

Sent to … Coventry. Photo: BBC

As I reflected on that Irish boycott, I remembered another phrase that proves cancel culture’s long history. When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to hear of people being ‘sent to Coventry’ when they were being ostracised or given the cold shoulder. Some say that the expression dates back over 470 years to the English civil war, when Royalist prisoners would be taken to Coventry, where they would be shunned by the locals.

I will know better next time someone claims cancel culture is a uniquely 21st century issue!

Note: Charles Boycott was not an army captain. It seems he was given the title of captain by the local community, who did not intend it as a compliment.

Thank you, Dervla Murphy

I’m in Inverness, on the eve of my latest cycling adventure. I’ll be pedalling 500 miles in seven days around the spectacular Highlands.

How poignant that my trip begins just days after the death of Dervla Murphy, who inspired me to explore the world on two wheels. Back in 1996 I picked up a copy of Full Tilt, her account of her ride from Dunkirk to Delhi, which began in the arctic winter of 1963 – the year I was born. I was enthralled by Dervla’s description of her journey, especially her travels through Afghanistan, a country she clearly loved. How heartbreaking to reflect on its ordeal in the past 40 years.

I met Dervla at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in, I think, 1996. She signed my copy of one of her books, and I told her what an inspiration she was to me. While I loved Full Tilt, her autobiography Wheels Within Wheels was arguably even better. She explained that she was only able to make her long dreamed about ride to India after her mother died. I was captivated by her family story, including her parents’ background in the Irish republican movement.

Not long after reading Full Tilt, I set off from my childhood home in Cardiff for Ireland, Dervla’s homeland. I was to cycle solo from Dublin over the Wicklow mountains, bound for Rosslare and the ferry back to Wales. The weather, in August 1996, was glorious and I declared Ireland a perfect cycle touring country. I have never made it to Lismore, Dervla’s hometown, but one day I might just pay a visit to the place that one of the greatest cycling travellers called home.

Dervla Murphy in India, 1960s. Photo: Guardian

Another of her books, A Place Apart, gives a stark account of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Dervla found it hard to credit the attitudes and actions of her fellow inhabitants of the island of Ireland. Especially the hardened loyalist community and the followers of Ian Paisley. (It was impossible to imagine in 1976 that Paisley would one day join IRA man Martin McGuinness in government in Northern Ireland.) Dervla’s bafflement was shared with many people on both sides of the Irish Sea.

It’s hard to realise today how unusual Dervla was in the 1960s as a female solo traveller writing about her experiences. She practised firing a pistol in County Waterford in preparation for future ordeals, and used it to shoot wolves in Bulgaria, Later it helped fend off a threatening Kurd. She later said the whole trip cost just £64, 7s and 10d in old money. 1963 truly was a different world.

Rest in peace, Dervla. You are an inspiration.

The day the IRA bombed my office

The Baltic Exchange war memorial stained glass: NMM, Brian Mawdsley

Walking around the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on Saturday, I was transported back in time by the sight of this stained glass display. It reminded me of the day the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombed my office in London 30 years ago this week.

The glass was part of the Baltic Exchange’s memorial to 60 members of the exchange who were killed in the Great War. The exchange building in St Mary Axe took the brunt of the explosion and was later demolished; the Gherkin now stands on the site. My office, a short walk along St Mary Axe, was badly damaged. I never worked there again.

I walked past the Baltic Exchange every day from 1990 to 1992 on my way to my office. I seem to remember a doorman stationed at the entrance, and metal gates used to block the entrance when it was closed. Or is my memory playing tricks?

Continue reading

Ireland marks the Easter rising centenary

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The 1916 rebellion that led to the end of British rule in the 26 counties

Easter has long been hugely significant in Ireland, and not just for religious reasons. The Good Friday agreement of 1998 marked the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, despite later tragedies such as Omagh. But the really significant event was the Easter rising of 1916, which Ireland marked today on a grand scale.

I blogged a decade ago that 2006 was the first time Dublin had staged a public parade to mark the Easter rising since the start of the  Northern Ireland Troubles in 1969. That murderous conflict complicated Ireland’s relationship with 1916. Ireland and Britain have an even stronger relationship now than in 2006, as the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 and Irish president Michael D Higgins’ state visit to Britain three years later showed.  Continue reading

Surviving the Mountbatten bombing: Timothy Knatchbull’s example to us all

A review of From a Clear Blue sky by Timothy Knatchbull

Monday 27 August 1979 was a glorious summer’s bank holiday in Britain and Ireland. I remember it very well. Mum, Dad and I enjoyed a day trip to Seaton in Devon. We’d spent a happy week there earlier that month, so a return trip was a bonus. We made the most of that lovely Monday.

The following morning, my father brought me a mug of tea and told me the awful news that the IRA had murdered Lord Mountbatten and 18 soldiers. It was only later that I realised that these were separate terrorist atrocities. Mountbatten had been killed by a bomb on his boat in Ireland, along with three others: his grandson Nicholas Knatchbull, aged 14, 15 year old Irish boy Paul Maxwell and Nicholas’s 83 year old grandmother, who died the following day.

The killing of Mountbatten was shocking, but it was the cold blooded murder of two teenage boys and an 83 year old woman that seemed so wicked at the time and in retrospect. It prompted the same kind of revulsion as the later terrorist attacks on America in 2001.

That August Tuesday, I wrote LLM (for Lord Louis Mountbatten) and the date 27.8.79 on a book I bought the previous day in Seaton, to commemorate a summer day that saw four lives wiped out on a similar family outing. I was a similar age in 1979 to the two boys killed in the attack.

Reading Timothy Knatchbull’s moving account of the attack and the aftermath took me right back to that summer’s week in 1979. Timothy survived the bombing along with his parents. Yet his loss was unique. For he was Nicholas Knatchbull’s identical twin. Losing a twin is especially traumatic, and Timothy had the added pain of not being able to say goodbye to his brother. (He was rescued unconscious from the water, and was too badly injured to return to Britain for his brother’s funeral.) Much of the book describes Timothy’s 25 year journey to understand Nicholas’s last moments, to mourn his brother and to find his own peace in Ireland, especially in the places that meant so much in his childhood before Monday 27 August 1979.

It’s a painful book to read at times, especially the poignant description of the days leading up to the bombing of Shadow V and the harrowing accounts of eye witnesses of the desperate hours after the killers struck. But I read it knowing that Timothy’s pain was far, far greater – and inspired by his description of the amazing care that he and his parents received in Sligo hospital, and his love of Ireland despite his family’s terrible ordeal in 1979.

It was hard even in the summer of 1979 to understand how Lord Mountbatten had not been better protected by the Irish and British authorities. That August marked the 10th anniversary of the ‘Troubles’ as Northern Ireland’s murderous conflict was euphemistically known. Mountbatten’s boat was barely guarded, so it didn’t take a genius to place a bomb on it. Knatchbull describes how every summer Mountbatten would write to the British and Irish authorities to check if it was safe for him to visit his Irish castle. Every year the authorities said yes. In 1979, that complacency proved a death warrant for two old people and two teenage boys.

Knatchbull’s is no ordinary family. The royal connection (Mountbatten was Prince Philip’s uncle) made them a target. Later, Timothy lightly describes how the Queen invited him for Christmas and tenderly helped him in his grief. But he also demonstrates the timeless and classless qualities of love that his own family shared to get through the months and years after the tragedy.

The story of Monday 27 August 1979 is just one of many across the years of the troubles that blighted Ireland and Britain. Timothy and his family showed that the bonds between our two countries and people were too strong for murderous people to destroy. Timothy also had the intelligence and compassion to realise that peace could only come by including terrorists in the peace and reconciliation process. Ironically, as he says, Lord Mountbatten understood this decades earlier in his own role ending British rule in India and insisting that Burmese nationalists be included in the liberated 1945 government in Burma. Mountbatten instinctively sympathised with the Irish, and even had sympathy for the ‘old’ IRA. Mountbatten’s enlightened attitudes were reflected in the grief and sympathy shown in India in the days after the bombing, and by the respect shown by the touring India test cricket team in the fourth test that started at The Oval later that week.

I’ll leave the last words to Timothy Knatchbull, writing in his journal during a return to Ireland as part of his delayed mourning for his lost twin:

“Today in Sligo, 24 years after the murders, I sensed that [bomber] Thomas McMahon’s moral vacuum has been defeated. The bloodbath he engineered failed to turn me to hatred. Instead I left Ireland feeling a love which I projected primarily onto one man, Tony Heenan [whose devoted care in Sligo hospital saved his life and those of his parents]. He has wit, humour and above all compassion. He cares. And my heart sings because I recognise that on 27 August 1979 Heenan defeated McMahon and I am the proof.”