"The gombeen man" is an Irish phrase for a loan shark, usurer or money lender. The phrase would have been in common usage throughout the nineteenth century, but it less commonly used today. Gombeen derives from the Irish gaimbín, which is the dimunitive of gamba, which means a small lump, a smidgen.
The gombeen man appears to have been a fixture of Irish rural life during the nineteenth century, when small Irish farmers struggled to come up with the rents demanded by their landlords, and had to turn to money lenders to avoid being evicted. James Connolly, in The Re-Conquest of Ireland, uses the phrase to pour scorn on Home Rulers who opposed the formation of agricultural co-operatives:
..the practice of co-operation would necessarily interfere with the profits of those leeches who, as gombeen men,
middlemen and dealers of one kind or another in the small country towns, sucked the life-blood of the
agricultural population around them.
Bram Stoker wrote a short story with the title "The Gombeen Man" in 1890, and the phrase also crops up in the Wandering Rocks episode of James Joyce's Ulysses:
-- What's the best news? Mr Dedalus said.
-- Why then not much, Father Cowley said. I'm barricaded up, Simon, with two men prowling around the house trying to effect an entrance.
-- Jolly, Mr Dedalus said. Who is it?
-- 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.
The most famous use of the term in recent times was by The Sunday Times, who ran an article in 1994 entitled "Goodbye Gombeen Man", welcoming Albert Reynolds' resignation as Taoiseach. Reynolds sued the newspaper and won, although the jury awarded him no damages. The judge in the case overturned the jury's decision on damages, awarding Reynolds one penny.