What was the Belfast Boycott?

Remembering her involvement in the revolution, Áine Ceannt, a Cumann na mBan (a female paramilitary group) activist and the widow of martyred Irish republican and 1916 Easter Rising participant Éamonn Ceannt, stated that the “[Belfast] boycott had a big effect on subsequent events in Ireland.”[1] In spite of Ceannt’s assertion regarding the boycott’s importance within Irish history, it has been the subject of limited research and is usually only briefly mentioned in accounts of the revolution. The Belfast Boycott was an attempt by Sinn Féin, the nationalist political party, to end partition and unify Ireland. This protest ran from August 1920 until January 1922 and was ostensibly designed to dislodge loyalism in Northern Ireland and punish its adherents for perceived intolerance toward Catholics. The larger purposes, though, were to prevent the permanent partition of Ireland and to further Irish economic revival.

In their attempts to make Ireland self-governing, Irish nationalists often stated their desire to rid the island of “750 years of English oppression.”[2] In the twelfth century the English invaded surrounding regions including modern-day Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.[3] Protestant settlers were sent to Ireland in the seventeenth century, further indicating England’s dominance over the island.[4] This colonization was met with intermittent resistance, particularly from Catholics who were opposed to rule by a Protestant state. English settlers confiscated the majority of Irish land. Penal laws were also implemented by the English government, severely curbing the political and economic rights of Irish Catholics and making it illegal for them to own property. By the nineteenth century, this inequality came to a violent head. Starting in the 1870s, Irish nationalists encouraged Catholic renters to advocate for fair rent, fixity of land tenure, and free sale from their Protestant landlords. The Land League was an organization created in 1879 that sought to deal with the land issue. Throughout the course of the land campaign tenants were encouraged to participate in rent strikes and boycott landlords or agents who were guilty of evicting their tenants. It was from these endeavors that the first documented use of the term “boycott” emerged.[5]A female branch of the organization, the Ladies Land League, played an important role in this opposition.[6] For Irish nationalists, boycotting became a common means of attacking tangible aspects of British power into the revolutionary period and beyond. 

In addition to creating economic tensions, Irish penal laws exacerbated sectarian conflicts between Protestants and Catholics that had dominated Irish politics for generations. This animosity between Catholics and Protestants led to the creation of two distinct Irish communities. The majority of Protestants in Ireland lived in the north, in the province of Ulster. The population in the south and west of Ireland, in contrast, was predominantly Catholic. As Irish nationalists expanded their efforts to gain independence for Ireland, many within the Protestant community became concerned with the prospect of rule by a Catholic state. Those who wanted to remain within the British Empire, referred to as loyalists or unionists, asserted that Irish home rule would be “Rome rule.” Titles such as “unionist” and “Protestant” were often used interchangeably, just as “nationalist” and “Catholic” were, though not all political affiliation fell evenly along religious lines. The question of what to do with the Protestant north became a serious concern to the British government with the proposal of the First Home Rule Bill in 1886. In 1920, the British partitioned Ireland into north and south. Irish nationalists however, vehemently opposed partition, asserting that Ireland could never really be independent until the entire island was free from British economic and political domination.

Irish nationalists had long attempted to eliminate not only British political control, but also the entirety of Britain’s economic system as it had been implanted in Ireland. Attempts to target wealthy Protestant landlords and agents through the land campaign highlighted the importance of economic freedom to the Irish nationalist cause. Patrick Pearse, one of the martyred architects of the 1916 Easter Rising, lamented the anglicization of the Irish people, he noted that they had grown “materialistic.”[7] His goals for Irish independence included not only a self-reliant economy but also one that rejected English consumerism. The drive for an autonomous Irish economy existed long before the revolution and continued to be a goal of the government in subsequent years.[8] In December 1921, the Dáil’s minister for finance Michael Collins stated:

“The history of this nation has not been, as is so often said, the history of a military struggle of 750 years; it has been much more a history of peaceful penetration of 750 years. It has not been a struggle for the ideal of freedom for 750 years symbolised in the name Republic. It has been a story of slow, steady, economic encroach by England. It has been a struggle on our part to prevent that, a struggle against exploitation, a struggle against the cancer that was eating up our lives, and it was only after discovering that, that it was economic penetration, that we discovered that political freedom was necessary in order that that should be stopped.”[9]

Irish revolutionaries wanted an Irish economy that was not dependent on Great Britain. Historian Jason Knirck stated that “Revolutionaries of various stripes agreed that Irish autonomy would unlock the vast untapped potential of the Irish economy.”[10] If to be British was to harbor materialistic tendencies and dependency on English industry, then nationalist notions of Irishness were constructed to aggressively reject such propensities. The founder of Sinn Féin and former journalist turned politician Arthur Griffith wrote, “Let the Irish people get out of their heads the insane idea that the agricultural and manufacturing industries are opposed.”[11] As historian McKayla Sutton argued, Irish modernity was constructed on the “potentially contradictory” marriage of rural with modern.[12]

As generations of Irish emigrants left Ireland, many bound for the United States, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia, Irish nationalists blamed their lack of employment opportunities on an English industrial system transplanted to a country for which it was not designed. Like all colonial industry, Belfast businesses were expected to benefit the metropole in London. Nationalists believed that if Ireland was industrialized using Irish, not British, methods, not only could they stop the mass migration of their job-seeking sons and daughters, but they could also achieve self-sufficiency and Irish-defined prosperity as an independent nation. Years later, one of the revolution’s key surviving figures, Éamon de Valera, gave a speech reflecting on this imagined Ireland. In March 1943, he stated “The Ireland that we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living.”[13] Unlike in corrupted Britain, the Irish economy was expected to make its people self-sufficient, rather than turn them into greedy materialists. De Valera went on to refer to an ideal Ireland as one “whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry.” Unlike the major industrialized cities of England or even the United States, an ideal Irish economy was one that supported smaller-scale industry in towns, rather than large urban centers. It was also industry that was expected to co-exist alongside “fields,” or rather, a thriving Irish agricultural trade that preserved the integrity of authentic, rural living. It was the physicality of their land and country that Irish nationalists imagined reclaiming, for the sake of the eventual Irish nation, its economy, and heritage. 

For Irish republicans, the industrialization of Belfast was problematic not because it had industrialized, but because it had industrialized according to a British, rather than an Irish, model. With the rapid growth of the linen industry throughout the 1860s, Belfast quickly became Ireland’s most industrialized and populous city.[14] In addition to linen production, Belfast also had a burgeoning shipbuilding industry that was known world-wide. Such industrialization by Ulster unionists, fueled by raw materials acquired from Britain as well as a dependence on British markets, stood in direct opposition to the establishment of a separate Irish identity. Historian David Fitzpatrick wrote that “The Belfast proletariat was itself increasingly stratified according to religion, with Catholics ever more confined to an underclass of temporary and manual workers.”[15] For Irish nationalists, an Irish economy as Griffith had envisioned it was one which merged agrarianism and modernity to form a foundation for a self-sufficient Irish state.

During the revolution Sinn Féin saw the strategy of boycotting as an effective economic weapon to wield against their opposition. In April 1919 Éamon de Valera, the president of the Dáil, Ireland’s self-proclaimed parliament, proposed a boycott of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the British-run police force in Ireland. The intent of the RIC boycott was to ostracize its officers socially and economically.[16] The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was active in this campaign, and while its purported goal was social ostracism, altercations between the IRA and the RIC often turned violent. This ultimately resulted in the killing of many RIC officers. Frustrated by the social, economic, and physical attacks on the RIC, over 5,000 loyalist workers met on July 21, 1920 on their lunch break outside of the Workman, Clark and Company shipyard in Belfast in response to posted flyers targeted at “all Unionist and Protestant workers.”[17] These employees refused to work alongside perceived supporters of Sinn Féin, whom they blamed for the attacks on RIC officers.[18] Approximately 6,700 workers were expelled from their positions, including both Catholics and other “labor activists” or Protestant workers who did not identify as unionists and were labeled “rotten prods;” 1,800 of these employees were women.[19]

Following the shipyard expulsion Seán MacEntee, a Sinn Féin T.D. from County Monaghan, submitted a statement in the Dáil, requesting support for a boycott of Belfast.[20] For many nationalists, the expulsion was more than another outbreak of violence; they viewed this as a pogrom against Catholics. Further, they claimed that such actions directly targeted the political goals of Sinn Féin and the Dáil. MacEntee called the displacement of Catholic workers “the first direct attack made upon the Irish Republic.”[21] MacEntee’s proposed boycott applied to goods from Belfast as well as Belfast-based banks. The Dáil never officially sanctioned the boycott, but chose to leave its implementation in the hands of the cabinet, which set up committees to manage it.[22] Businesses found with contraband goods were fined. A volunteer network also watched train stations and shipping yards to ensure goods from Belfast were not being smuggled. Businesses that refused to comply with the boycott were blacklisted. In March 1921 the boycott was extended to Great Britain. The boycott of Great Britain was approved as a “piece-meal” boycott, first ensuring native supplies of goods before trade was cut off with Britain.[23] Both boycotts continued even after a truce was declared between Great Britain and the nascent Irish Republic in 1921. 

In December 1921, five Irish plenipotentiaries, including leading revolutionary figure Michael Collins and the founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, signed the Anglo-Irish treaty. The treaty did not guarantee the independent republic that nationalists had imagined, but it proposed the establishment of the Irish Free State that could govern itself with the king as head of state. The treaty promised the removal of British troops and officials from the south of Ireland and the establishment of a provisional government until official elections could be arranged for the Free State. The treaty passed in the Dáil on January 7, 1922. However, because many republicans saw the treaty as too much of a compromise and refused to vote in favor of it, the treaty infamously split the government and eventually plunged the nation headlong into civil war. In early 1922, Sir James Craig, the president of Stormont, the Northern Irish parliament, and Michael Collins, who was named the head of the provisional government of the Irish Free State, met to resolve Irish problems without an English middleman. The result of this meeting was the Collins-Craig agreement, which addressed, in part, the worker expulsion and boycott directly. Provision three promised that Collins would terminate the boycott, and that Craig would try “to facilitate in every possible way the return of Catholic workmen … to the shipyards.”[24] However, anti-treatyites ignored the agreement and continued to enforce the boycott well into 1922. 

The boycott was an aspect of the revolutionary period over which women exhibited considerable influence. Women contributed to the cause by buying Irish goods, running boycott committees, attending industrial fairs, picketing the sale of British goods, and, at times, even participating in the raiding of shops and trains. Women were viewed as important actors, but it was often assumed that they had to be directed by men or a few select, elite women. The implementation of the boycott was largely undertaken by women who provided organization and enforcement. At the same time, however, the boycott reinforced the role of the woman as the passive and ill-informed homemaker and showered her with blame for her perceived unwillingness to alter her consumption habits. While largely overlooked, the Belfast Boycott provides valuable insights into the ways the status of women was both expanded and simultaneously reduced throughout the Irish Revolution.

The Belfast Boycott began as a nationalist campaign seeking to reinstate northern Catholic workers and undo Irish partition. Its failure to achieve either of these objectives has relegated the movement to historical obscurity. Such hasty banishment, however, ignores the wealth of insight on gender, consumerism, division, and identity that the boycott can provide to scholars of the revolution. It was a vital historical event that impacted not only Ireland, but the United States as well. Please help us preserve the legacy of this important campaign and the women who made it possible.*


[1] Áine Ceannt witness statement, Irish Military Archives (IMA), Bureau of Military History (BMH), (online), www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921, WS 264, 62.

[2] Dáil Debate (hereafter referred to as DD), 19 December 1921.

[3] R. F. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 3.

[4] Stephen Howe. Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 229.

[5] Captain Charles Boycott was the first land agent targeted by the Land League’s campaign.

[6] Margaret Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism (London: Pluto Press, 1995), 25. 

[7] Jason Knirck, Imagining Ireland’s Independence: The Debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 37.

[8] DD, 12 May 1933.

[9] DD, 19 December 1921. 

[10] Knirck, 15.

[11] ‘Economic Salvation and the means to attain it, as explained in the writings of Ireland’s greatest teacher of economics, Arthur Griffith.’ Selected and arranged by Seumas Whelan, published by Whelan & Son, 17 Upper Ormond Quay, 1934: Eithne Coyle O’Donnell papers, University College Dublin Archives (hereafter referred to as UCDA) P61/34, 10, 23.

[12]  McKayla Sutton, “Illuminating The Irish Free State: Nationalism, National Identity, And The Promotion Of The Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme” (PhD diss., Marquette University, 2014), 316. 

[13] Éamon de Valera “‘The Ireland That We Dreamed Of’ Speech, 1943.” Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) Archives (published online on 4 August 2015), http://www.rte.ie/archives/exhibitions/eamon-de-valera/719124-address-by-mr-de-valera/.

[14] Mark Doyle, Fighting like the Devil for the Sake of God: Protestants, Catholics and the Origins of Violence in Victorian Belfast (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 6.

[15] David Fitzpatrick, The Two Irelands 1912-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 20.

[16] DD, 10 April 1919. 

[17] Alan Parkinson, Belfast’s Unholy War: The Troubles of the 1920s (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004), 33.

[18] Motherwell Times, 23 July 1920.

[19] Memo on Approximate Number of Workers Expelled, October 1921: Desmond FitzGerald papers, UCDA P80/361 (5); Jane G. V. McGaughey, Ulster’s Men: Protestant Unionist Masculinities and Militarization in the North of Ireland, 1912-1923 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2012), 143.

[20] T.D. is short for Teachta Dála, meaning member of the Dáil.

[21] DD, 6 August 1920.

[22] Owen McGee, Arthur Griffith (Newbridge: Merrion Press, 2015), 231. 

[23] DD, 11 March 1921. 

[24] The Collins-Craig Agreement, 1922: Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (online), http://www.difp.ie/docs/1922/Collins-Craig-agreement/226.html. This document is held in the National Archives of Ireland (NAI) DT S1801A.


Let’s make a statue!

Above image of Irish revolutionary women in 1920 via RTE.