A Gombeen man is a pejorative Hiberno-English term used in Ireland for a shady, small-time "wheeler-dealer" or businessman who is always looking to make a quick profit, often at someone else's expense or through the acceptance of bribes. Its origin is the Irish word "gaimbín", meaning monetary interest. The term referred originally to a money-lender and became associated with those shopkeepers and merchants who exploited the starving during the Irish Famine by selling much-needed food and goods on credit at ruinous interest rates.
The despised image of the gombeen as an usurious predator on the poor was immortalized in the poem "The Gombeen Man" by Irish poet Joseph Campbell:
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.—Joseph Campbell, The Gombeen Man
While the phrase "gombeen man" is almost always intended without any religious or ethnic context, it can be applied in relation to other groups such as, in this instance, a Jewish man:
-- O, Father Cowley said. A certain gombeen man of our acquaintance.
-- With a broken back, is it? Mr Dedalus asked.
-- The same, Simon, Father Cowley answered. Reuben of that ilk.
Crime writer Kyril Bonfiglioli wrote a dark short story called "The Gombeen Man" about just such a character in the late 70s.
This excerpt is from "The Crock of Gold," by James Stephens: "... the women were true to their own doctrines and refused to part with information to any persons saving only those of high rank, such as policemen, gombeen men, and district and county councillors; but even to these they charged high prices for their information, and a bonus on any gains which accrued through the following of their advices."
More generally, "gombeen" is now an adjective referring to all kinds of underhand or corrupt activities and to the mindset possessed by those engaged in such activities. In Irish politics, it is used to condemn an opponent for dishonesty or corruption, although its definition has become less precise with time and usage and it can also imply pettiness and close-mindedness. Alternative modern parlance for a gombeen man is someone "on the make". It is also used to describe certain Independent politicians who are seen to prioritize their constituents needs, no matter how trivial, over national interests.
- "We want to be free to pursue our grievances in our own way so that we will not have to go like gombeen men and women to the doors of politicians" -- Máirín Quill, Dáil debate, 1987.
- "Goodbye Gombeen Man", a Sunday Times headline from 1994, which was referred to in a more recent Guardian article. "Mr Reynolds had objected to a 1994 Sunday Times article - headlined 'Goodbye gombeen man. Why a fib too far proved fatal' ..."
- "As a Dubliner I have no problem with the principle of decentralisation but I do not want it to cost excessive amounts of money and to be the type of gombeen initiative that the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, who has just left the committee, projected" -- Richard Bruton, Dáil committee debate, 2003.
- "Bertie Ahern yesterday turned the tables on one of the most trenchant critics of the Government's decentralisation programme, Professor Ed Walsh, and also lashed the 'gombeen' opposition to the plan." -- Fionnán Sheahan, Irish Examiner, 2004.
- Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service Debates 10 December 2003 (Burton).
- Dáil Éireann parliamentary debates, 28 October 1987 (Quill).