Gombeen is a word used and abused in Irish politics, often in a navel gazing fashion by political commentators pouring scorn on a rural electorate they don’t understand or trust. This has allowed some of the atypical gombeen politicians to rally rural voters to them in an imagined us vs them, rural vs urban Ireland political struggle.
Key to this process has been a pattern of continuous misuse of the word gombeen in the context of Irish politics. TDs associated with parochialism and general backwardness are often labelled as gombeen men which creates a view that everything rural is gombeen and that everything gombeen is rural and backwards. In modern Irish political discourse the use of gombeen has become synonymous with rural parochialism, this narrow definition of gombeen is both insulting to the rural electorate and masks the exploitative economic role of gombeen men in Irish history.
The modern use of gombeen is partially the result of a deep misunderstanding of what a gombeen man is/was. While gombeen is a uniquely Irish phrase its original meaning has been somewhat lost. Gombeen man is a term that describes the class of better off peasants who controlled economic, social, and political capital in rural society. James Connolly described them as ‘leaches’ who ‘sucked the life blood from the agricultural population around them’.
While G.W. Russell described the political economy of rural Ireland and the position of the gombeen men as follows:
“The landlord owned the land. The gombeen men owned the people, and the profits the gombeen got out of the men was greater by far than the profit the landowner got out of his holdings”.
The gombeen was certainly a powerful figure in nineteenth and twentieth century Irish society, whose wealth was the result of other peoples work. It was a social class similar to that of a Russian Kulak, larger peasants who maintained their privilege and power through a system of patronage and indebtedness. Similar to Kulaks they occupied a political position that was much more conservative than that of the mass of landless farm labourers and poor farmers. In Ireland gombeen men largely formed the rural core of moderate nationalists both pre and post-independence, whereas landless labourers and small holders were over represented in rural militancy from the land war agitation of Davitt, to the upsurge in labour and agrarian militancy during the war of independence and civil war, and the campaign against land annuities in the 1920s.
The economic power of the gombeen man was broken through the self organisation and campaigning of the rural poor, the emergence of the cooperative movement and credit unions gave small farmers and rural workers access to cheaper credit and allowed them to purchase goods from new coop stores which were controlled by the poor themselves. With the gombeens economic role in rural society largely made redundant thanks to the availability of cooperative credit the memory of Gombeen men became part of rural Ireland’s collective psychology, a miserly figure who exploits his neighbours.
The word has however maintain its presence in political discourse with TDs from high profile rural independents like the Healy Rae’s to Fianna Fail stalwarts being described as Gombeens. Sometimes this description is apt when describing the self-serving politics of certain TDs and governments. However most commonly gombeen is used specifically when talking negatively about rural TDs.
The use of gombeen as a pejorative catch all for rural TDs paradoxically primarily serves the interests of gombeen men who like the Healy Rae’s can carve out a political niche by railing against the government and talking about ‘going up to Dublin’ to fight for rural Ireland all the while perusing policies which directly benefit their business interests. Even if it means profiting from the very practices that do the most damage to communities
The Gombeen man’s economic power over rural society was broken as a result of self-organisation by the rural poor who created an alternative source of finance with more democratic control. However his social power has continued paradoxically it has been aided by a Dublin led political discourse which dismisses all rural politics as gombeen politics, this fundamental misunderstanding of the political economic origin of the Gombeen only helps further the false narrative of Dublin vs rural Ireland.
Economically the Gombeen is a spent force politically however the self-serving actions of countless politicians such as the landlord TDs who vote against tenants’ rights shows that the Gombeen man is very much still a part of Irish society. The rural poor successfully freed themselves from economic hold of Gombeen debt, a recognition of what the gombeen precisely is will allow us to finally remove this figure from Irish political life.