Here’s an extract from an article on Gom’beenism by Conor McCabe, which Rabble published in their great community print magazine and have now provided online. To help keep Rabble magazine in print please support their fundit campaign.
Gombeen (g?m ‘bi:n). Anglo-Irish. Usury. Chiefly attrib., as Gombeen-Man, a money-lender, usurer; so also gombeen-woman. Hence gom’beenism, the practice of borrowing or lending at usury.
The 19th-century term Gom’beenism, the practice of borrowing or lending at usury, is increasingly referenced in relation to Ireland’s domestic economic practices. Conor McCabe takes a look at the history of the Irish middleman and argues that they haven’t gone away.
On Tuesday 3 January 1882 the nobility and landed gentry of Ireland met in Dublin to discuss the future of the island. Among those present was R.J. Mahony, a landowner from Kerry. He stood and said that the recently-passed land act would be the ruin not only of the landlords but of the small farmer as well. He explained that as soon as the landlord class was put out of the way, another would come along to take their place.‘The merchant, the trader, the usurer, the gombeen man,’ said Mahony, were ‘the future rulers of the land.’ Mr. Mahony called these the middlemen, and although he may have had his reasons for defending landlordism, his warnings were not without foundation. Forty years later the middleman were in the ascendancy and set about carving the newly-independent free state in their image – and we’ve been living with the consequences of that ever since.
Just who were these middlemen? In an article published in 1982 Michael D. Higgins wrote that the mainstream image of the period – and the one taught at secondary level – was one of poor small farmers fighting against perfidious, foreign landlords. However, what was glossed over in such a black and white analysis was that there was another struggle – a class struggle – going on, one that involved small farmers and the rancher/grazier families. These large rancher farmers fattened cattle for export, and occasionally they were the local shopkeepers, the arbiters of credit in the community, and the dispensers of loans. It gave them significant societal influence and power. Not all shopkeepers were graziers, of course, but neither one was the friend of the smallholder. The social relations which underpinned Irish rural society were not only framed by land, but by credit: those who needed it, and those who profited from it. And in the north and west of Ireland, it was the Irish entrepreneurial spirit of the middleman and his gombeen cousin that held sway over credit.
Read the rest here.