My next thought was that there was a problem with the USB subsystem. So I checked I had all the right stuff in the kernel. Tick. So I googled around for how to find out what's connected to the USB. Handy little program lsusb. It told me that I had a "Philips eHome Infrared Receiver". Checking the dmesg logs at /var/log/dmesg showed nothing wrong with the USB side of things. So what was going on?
Google once more to the rescue! Turns out that I had compiled the wrong LIRC driver (or no driver at all). Changing my LIRC_DEVICES to mceusb2 (and reemerging lirc) compiled the correct driver /lib/modules/2.6.31-gentoo-r6/misc/lirc_mceusb2.ko modprobing lirc_mceusb2 created /dev/lirc0 Testing it via irw I got some results
000000037ff07be9 00 Play mceusbAll that was left was adding the kernel module to /etc/modules.autoload.d/kernel-2.6, and adding lircd to the default startup sequence and I was done. A quick reboot to ensure that everything worked from the get go, and I had a working remote control. Turns out the running etc-update after reemerging lirc updated my /etc/lirc.conf with a config file for generic RC-6 remote; which is handy because on the bottom of the remote it's labelled "RC6" ;). It's nice that the ebuild for lirc copies the config for you upon install. Not hard to do it myself, but I like the ebuild doing the heavy lifting for me :)
Now I have to do some config to make sure that apps can respond to those bathroom break pauses during the extended Lord Of The Rings sessions :p
Update: next time I should check the Hardware4Linux site. Might save me some troubles.