The Gombeen Men are on the go!

“Mountain breezes as they blow

Hear their echo in the glen below

The gombeen men are on the go

In the hills of Connemara”

So goes a verse of Tommy Makem's rousing song “The Hills of Connemara” (sometimes known as “The Mountain Tae”, an overture to that traditional Irish distillation, poteen ) and including a mention of “the gombeen men”.

Who, in fact, were the Gombeen Men? To find the answer we must go back in time to a period in Irish history during which, today, we might characterise as a time when Ireland was “a land without leaders”.

In the wake of the Act of Union, enacted by the English Parliament, and the consequent closure of the Irish legislature, the so-called “Landlord Class” left Ireland. However, they did not give up their lands but rented these out through “agents” to “strong farmers” who, conversely, sublet parcels of land to “cottiers” (small tenant farmers).

Invariably, the size of farms that resulted from this apportioning of the land left these cottiers barely able to support a family unit, and the only available crop that could provide anything approaching sustenance was the humble potato.

At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, marked change took place on the land. Grain was no longer required in huge quantities to feed the English armies, however, there was a greater need for the provision of meat. Cottier rents were increased to levels which they could not meet.

Along, then, came the Gombeen Men. A gombeen man was, effectively, a type of loan shark, despised, and a predator on the poor. A fixture of Irish rural life, he was a petty moneylender who would charge horrendous rates of interest on loans given to the small rural farmer left at his mercy. The word “ gombeen ” derives from the Irish gaimbin , meaning “usury” (the practice of lending money at an unfairly or illegally high rate of interest). As a shady, small-time “wheeler-dealer” or business man he was always on the look out for a quick profit, generally at someone else's expense, or through the acceptance of bribes.

Taken advantage of by gombeen men and unable to meet their rents and debts, starving families ended up being evicted from their homes and forced to carve out a miserable existence along the highways and byways of Ireland. The 1830's evidenced literally thousands of people living rough and sheltering in “lean-to's” (described as “scalps” or “ scailpins ”) against walls or even banks of peat.  The gombeen men, leeches that they were, sucked the very lifeblood out of the agrarian population around them.

If landlords were forever destined to be regarded as alien to Irish life, gombeen men and their ilk from their “position” in country towns, their pretentious display of religious adherence, and voluble declarations of patriotism, frequently became the dominant counsels in gatherings of “Home Rulers” and other nationally organised groups.

During the Irish Famine (1845 to 1850) the term “ gombeen ” became associated with those unscrupulous, greedy shopkeepers and merchants who exploited the starving by selling to them much-needed foodstuffs and goods at ruinous rates of interest. The image of the gombeen was encapsulated by the Irish poet Joseph Campbell in his poem “The Gombeen Man”, as the following passage shows:

“Behind a web of bottles, bales,

Tobacco, sugar, coffin nails

The gombeen like a spider sits,

Surfeited; and, for all his wits,

As meagre as the tally-board

On which his usuries are scored”

Bram Stoker, creator of “Dracula”, wrote a short story in 1890 entitled “The Gombeen Man” and the term also appears in James Joyce's “Ulysses.

This was a time, only a relatively short 150 years or so ago, before the age in which we now live in Ireland when, seemedly , the banks and other financial institutions have available what would appear to be a bottomless pit of money, at relatively low  rates of interest, to fuel an insatiable thirst for bigger houses and cars, and more and better material goods. A far cry today, indeed, from the Ireland of the mid-1800's when even basic subsistence living, nay survival, was an achievement in itself. 

The dependence of the rural populace on gombeen men continued well after its servitude to the landlord had ceased. It was said that, whereas the landlords had owned the land, the gombeen men” had owned the people. A lamentable analogy, and an illustration that, from the standpoint of the rural dweller, their lot had, in fact, gone from bad to worse. Unscrupulous, greedy   traders controlled at the time, perhaps, up to three quarters of the small farmers through the provision of the credit without which they could not live.

These days, “ gombeen ” has, generally, become here an adjective embracing a variety of corrupt or underhand activities and, indeed, a reference to the “mentality” of those engaged in such endeavours . In the Irish political arena it has been deployed to denigrate an opponent for dishonesty or corruption, and the term has come up with regularity in Dáil debates, although, perhaps, not always strictly in accordance with its original meaning, but has certainly been used in an attempt to be derogatory in some way!

The most infamous use of the term here, in more modern times, was by a well-known Sunday newspaper which, in an article in 1994 entitled “Goodbye Gombeen Man” welcomed the resignation of the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Albert Reynolds. He subsequently sued the newspaper and won his case, although the jury made no award of damages to him. However, the judge in the case overruled the jury's decision with regard to damages, and awarded Reynolds the princely sum of one penny. 

The preciseness of the meaning of “ gombeen ” has lessened with the passage of time and its usage, and it can now be used to imply pettiness or closed-mindedness. In modern-day language usage a “ gombeen ” would be someone who is “on the make”, “out to make a quick buck”, “pulling strokes” or, generally, fiddling.

Thankfully, the “ gombeen man” has now departed the scene. Or has he, some might query, given the huge profits being turned in these days by certain banks and other lending institutions, fuelled by the level of their charges?

Michael Fox

June, 2007.

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