I had a chat once with my old landlady about the meaning of that word ‘gombeen’ prompted by Varadkar appearing on the telly one evening. She said “I don’t think there’s any gombeens left anymore.” She spoke as if it were an ancient relic, as banished from Ireland as snakes. I said no more of it. In a modern sense I always associated that term with Fine Gael politicians, or people who cared about issues for the sake of looking important and trendy rather than actually caring about them. In a more general sense; people who would happily betray the values they espoused or advocated for in order to turn a quick profit. There are enough living examples of this that you could fill libraries, but that’s not for here.
The idea of the gombeen can be seen in the country’s generational groups. Our gombeens can be compared to a hybrid of the Generation X and Baby Boomer phenomena often utilised by American demographers. Of course, the whole generation aren’t gombeens, but they make up a considerable portion of it. If we consider the Irish version of ‘boomers’ to be the last generation to grow up in a truly socially conservative Ireland, they were also the ones who also first tasted material prosperity, and whose attitudes towards consumerism changed almost overnight. An overindulged, pot-bellied generation who often act like the hosts of their own gala luncheons. You see them now and it’s hard to imagine them when they were younger.
They were and are the last generation who took the inevitability of nuclear families for granted. Moral concern still existed, and even now beneath the veneer of their easy-living, it can still be excavated – just so long as it’s something that affects them. They tend to virtue-signal for the ‘refugees’ or ‘climate justice’ as if they were the new ‘starving third world children.’ They’ll still fondly tell you of how little they had as kids, and how white bread and sugar was the candy of their day. Mass immigration, outsourcing, and automation are benign to them; they live in bubbles where few bad outcomes reach them.
They aren’t in the modern job market, they aren’t on the modern housing market, they aren’t on the rental market, though that’s not to say that some of them won’t make a quick buck from renting out their properties. Who they rent to won’t matter, so long as it’s money, grand so. They’ll smugly shrug off the difficulties experienced by the younger generation, citing the ‘adventurous’ and ‘flexible’ nature of Irish people. They’ll rub their hands at the prospect of their sons and daughters going out into “the big bad world,” and they’ll follow up that with statements like “he’s working away there” and “ah would ya look at them go!”
They’re possessed of a work ethic that’s being consistently rendered more obsolete and dubious each passing day; work hard, expect rewards. They expect you to carry it on. They think the economy will reward you like it rewarded them. The neo-gombeen doesn’t understand the effects of a market that is getting more and more open, the village getting more and more global and homogenised. The youth are facing a world becoming more digital and less physical by the day. With more and more economic migration, young people are facing far more competition and a race to the bottom with foreigners who’ll work the same unfulfilling wage-slave jobs as you, only they’ll at least have some sort of buying power back in their countries of origin should they choose to go home, where their buying power is far more on an Irish wage.
Yet if they show more ‘incentive’ to work than you do, you and many other younger Irish people are ‘lazy’ and ‘ungrateful’ for what’s available to you, according to the neo-gombeen. There’s opportunity out there and you’re not looking for it, not ‘hungry,’ not ‘achieving.’ Not “bringing something to the table,” according to the neo-gombeens.
They’re happy enough to encourage you to work hard, no matter what the work, but to play hard too. Life’s for living, whatever that means. Even though they’re settled down, some of them will encourage you to live solely for the purpose of your pleasure, forsake sacrifice and commitment, and endlessly live as an atomised consumer/worker bee, for they ‘envied’ that prospect, as if to suggest settling down, getting married, and bringing you, their children and youth into the world was something that they didn’t really want, and could have willingly avoided if the societal expectations weren’t there to make them do it in the first place.
You’ve surely seen these people somewhere. You’ve seen them in your workplace, in the local Centra buying their croissant and Frank and Honest coffee, at the pub, at a cafe or restaurant. They could be even of a traditionally working class ‘social climber’ milieu, the ones who retain the grit of their socio-economic background but gain the pomposity and show-boat arrogance that defines people who traditionally had more money than them.
They could be Conor McGregor, a wheeler dealer from Cork, or a double glazing salesman from Finglas. They could be a solicitor from Blackrock, a lawyer from Ballsbridge, or a GP from Donnybrook. They could be members of your family. They could even be your uncles, aunts, fathers or mothers.
The female of this species is a strange one. I categorise this not out of disdain, but just for the sake of the pattern being more unique and noticeable amongst them. Women have only experienced liberalisation in Irish society in more recent years, so their approach to this phenomena is all the more gripping. More often than not they’re quite middle-class, on an off day fitting the ‘lycra mammy’ profiles that you’ll see jogging in parks or down canals in pairs or triplets.
By day they may be working in anywhere from RTE, consultancy, PR, and legal firms or the civil service. Always slightly challenging the perceived ‘traditional’ feminine role in the labour market, marked by a hungry enthusiasm to ‘succeed’ ever since attending UCD in the 90’s. But they’re also marked by a sense of (rightful) pride in being mothers and workers simultaneously, though work may very well overbear their capability of being the mother they’d like to be.
They’re the essence of what I like to call the “post-Miriam O’Callaghan” woman. In that they’re professionally and legally ‘liberated,’ even quite glamorous and sassy back in their day but still clearly women. They’re feminist purely in a second-generational sense, and have nothing to do with the gynocratic anger of the Repeal jumper wearing generation.
Make no mistake, all that which is highlighted in this piece is symbolic of modern Ireland’s decay. If we are currently at ‘generation snowflake,’ the neo-gombeens were the storm that allowed it to settle.