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 went 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.
Today the middleman is concerned with the tax avoidance, commercial property and resource licences. In the nineteenth century it was the sub-letting of land. The link between the centuries is the practice of positioning oneself between foreign capital and the resources of the island. In an article for the London Times on 7 October 1845 the newspaper’s Irish correspondent explained the ‘middleman’ system to his English readers. Large tracts of land, including waste-land, were let by landlords to a class of businessman known as middlemen. ‘The middleman of 100 acres is no farmer as in England, who invests his capital and skill and industry in the land, and looks for a fair profit,’ write the journalist. The middleman’s ‘laziness makes him prefer doing nothing, his greediness and necessities make him resort to subletting at exorbitant rents to poor tenants, whilst he lives an idle, useless extortioner on the profit rent.’ The poor tenants, in turn, become themselves rent-seekers. ‘He lets out an acre out of his farm of six acres in conacre to some wretched labourer’ wrote the correspondent, ‘who for the potatoes grown on this land is perhaps compelled to work for the farmer the whole year.’
This is not to say that the middleman and gombeen man always got their own way. In the early 1850s the sin of usury and profiteering was punished in the North-West of Ireland by local secret societies such as the Ribbonmen or Molloy Maguires. In one particular case in 1852, recounted by an ex-policeman 50 years later in the Irish Times, three men ‘known as gombeen men purchased agricultural produce in the harvest time and sold out seed in the spring time to needy farmers… touching heavy interest on their three or six months’ bills.’ Their business acumen brought them to the attention of the Ribbonmen. The ex-policeman explained what happened next:
When a gombeen man infringed the rules of the Ribbonmen he was put on trial, and if found guilty, the sentence was carding. His house was visited by a select party of these legislators, generally between midnight and 2am, and he was taken out of bed naked, and placed on a chair in the room, and a pair of wool cards were used with vigour on his chest and back until the blood flowed freely. He was then solemnly cautioned to obey their orders in the future or worse would follow….. The parish priest denounced [the Ribbonmen] from the altar, and a message was conveyed to him to mind his own business.
By the end of the nineteenth century the middleman had expanded their business model into the cities. The decline of Dublin in the decades after the Act of Union and the retreat of the landed gentry from the city opened up the Georgian squares and grand houses to the speculator and rank-renter. In his evidence to the 1884-85 Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, the chief medical officer of Dublin, Sir Charles Cameron, was scathing in his criticism of this urban class of middlemen. In the word of his biographer, Lydia Carroll, this class ‘rented houses from absentee landlords, to re-let at exorbitant rents to the poor.’ Cameron in his evidence stated that they ‘live by screwing the largest amount of rent they can out of the tenants. The disproportion between the rents which the actual owner of the house gets and the rents these house jobbers get out of the tenants is sometimes as one to three.’
In 1924, when the dust had settled on the Civil War, and with the industrial north ensconced in its own mini-state, the grazier, shop-keeper, rank-renter and gombeen man set about the task of carving the Irish State in their image. And what a sight it is to behold.
Since the 1920s the gombeen has become a shorthand for all the ills and evils of the Irish business class. The sins of the middleman, the rank rents and money lending, have concertinaed into a Pat Shortt bumbling character of cloth cap and Guinness stains proportions. And throughout the history of the state, although the type of business has changed, the underlying principles have not. The Irish entrepreneur is still a rentier-class, still acting as middleman between foreign capital and the resources of the State – but whereas before it was the Georgian houses that marked their lives, now it’s the IFSC and the law and accountancy firms that make billions by handling the tax-avoidance millions of others. The resource for sale today is the right of a nation-state to set its own tax laws, and to have those tax laws recognised internationally. That is a tradable commodity, one that provides a comfortable living for those engaged in it. The business suit has replaced the cloth cap, but the gombeenism and criminal self-interest remain.