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The gombeen man lives on

Gombeens nowadays come in all shapes, sizes, sexes, and collectives.

The gombeen man in Ireland was a presence in country towns and villages in former years. The species emerged during the dark days of the Irish Famine in the Black ‘Forties of the nineteenth century. With thousands upon thousands fleeing the land, and untold thousands and thousands dying of hunger, somebody had to step in and reap the benefits from all that abandoned land, vacant sites, shops, and failed businesses. Enter the gombeen man.

The gombeen man was the one who grabbed up the derelict sites, the farms denuded of people, the residue of once thriving commerce and local enterprise. He was the big shot of his times. He saw opportunities and seized them. He knew the price of everything, and of every person. In many areas he was the sole grocer, landlord, and canny money lender. It never bothered him that he was known as a gombeen man. It was a derogatory term when used by others, but what did he care? The others in almost all cases were in his debt.

Pass on a few generations, and his offspring sought an air of respectability. They discarded the gombeen connotation and sought to replace it with something more elevating, more socially acceptable. Voila! Enter the developer, the gombeen man in modern guise. The very name “developer” signaled newly won status in the era of the Celtic Tiger.

Being a developer cloaks past associations with gombeenism. But price and profit continue to be the developer’s principal consideration. Value in the sense of worth to community, to place, to country, is never a factor in his thinking. Value in the sense of past associations, traditions, and heritage means nothing.

Time and again heritage buildings have fallen prey to the modern gombeen men. Outrageous examples exist of buildings torn down in the dark of night to allow their replacement with commercial offices. Even graveyards have not escaped his attention, as described earlier in this e-zine.

Today’s modern gombeen men operate not only individually but also, in increasing numbers, as faceless companies. Fortunately one such grouping has a public persona and bears a collective responsibility. It is the Government of the Twenty-Six County Republic of Ireland.

It is that government which sanctioned the desecration of the greatest historical site in the whole of Ireland, Tara Skreen valley, an area which has been of historical and religious significance in Ireland for thousands of years, with archaeological finds dating back to 4000BC.

The significance of Tara was known to every young person who attended primary school over the last eighty years. That every single member of the Government knew its relevance in the history and culture of Ireland, stretching further back than the Egyptian pyramids and England’s Stonehenge, cannot be denied. Yet, just like the gombeen man of yore, they acted as one in ignoring their own land’s history and culture. They decided to drive a roadway through the most treasured area of antiquity in Ireland, and to ignore its historic and cultural value, past, present, and future.

Why? Because the gombeen man lives on. He has only changed his stripes, and not for the better.

During a recent BBC Six County radio interview—not RTÉ (if anybody has to ask why, that person is an amadhaun)—Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s foremost poet and Nobel Laureate, roundly condemned the whole project.

"I think it literally desecrates an area - I mean the word means to de-sacralise and for centuries the Tara landscape and the Tara sites have been regarded as part of sacred ground," he said.

“The Proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916 summoned people in the name of the dead generations and called the nation, called the people in the name of the dead generations.

“If ever there was a place that deserved to be preserved in the name of the dead generations from pre-historic times up to historic times up to completely recently - it was Tara.

"Tara means something equivalent to me to what Delphi means to the Greeks, or maybe Stonehenge to an English person, or Nara in Japan which is one of the most famous sites in the world," he said.

The project has been condemned by hundreds of academics, archaeologists and conservationists around the world who have written to the Irish government to register their opposition to the M3 route.

Said Dr. Jonathan Foyle of the World Monuments Fund, “Let's face it, this entire site is the equivalent of Stonehenge, Westminster Abbey for its royal associations, Canterbury for its Christian associations - all rolled into one."

The mindset of the Irish government of today reminds one of the derisive description given by a politician when dismissing an earlier man of letters as “only a litherary man”.

Gombeen then, gombeen now.

All hail to the modern gombeen men and women who form the government and dance to the tune of the gombeen developer!

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