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We are losing our brightest and best to distant shores

It's time to sit up and take notice when the politicians start suggesting that emigration isn't such a bad thing.

The weasel words go something like this; that our young are better educated than ever before, well equipped to prosper in a foreign land; that many go by choice; that the world is much smaller and the sanctuary of home is but a discount flight away; that the wild geese will bring vigour and knowledge with them when the magnetic pull of dear old Ireland proves irresistible.

But they won't come home.

And that is the greatest tragedy, the mortal sin of our shameful descent. Christmas is a mean affair this year. The €14 turkeys in Aldi and Lidl draw crowds of early-morning shoppers.

The see-saw has tipped from the vulgar, tacky and grubby excess of four short years ago to the Christmas of 2011, celebrated with disquieting parsimony.

Shoppers are afraid to spend and waiting more than ever for the sales; socks for Dad under the Christmas tree, something a bit better for Mum and cash for the teenage kids.

And there will be empty chairs at the Christmas table. No need for a full ham this year.

Consider these figures obtained last week by the Sunday Independent from Tim Hall of the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Consider them and weep for Ireland's loss.

Between July 1, 2010, and June 30 this year, 736 Irish families were granted Australian visas under the Family Stream Migration Programme. Most of them won't be home this Christmas -- nor for many Christmases to come while they find their feet in that lucky country.

They are putting down deep roots that may never be lifted.

Fintan O'Toole put it well in his book The Lie of the Land. He wrote: "Home is no longer a place that you visit at Christmas time but the place in which you put up the Christmas tree for your children."

And I suppose the people who have abandoned our failed Republic and, of course, the politicians who increasingly view emigration as an economic safety valve keeping the real jobless rate artificially low in the official stats, are grateful to the land down under.

Yet one can't help thinking that our friends in Australia, who, rightfully, pick and choose carefully, who they allow the privilege of entering their country, have got a great deal. We are losing our best.

Consider the figures again. In the year up of June 30 this year 2,481 visas were granted to Irish citizens. This does not include the children who went with their parents under the Family Stream Migration but does include 696 visas to individuals under the General Skilled Migration Programme and another 1,037 visas sponsored by Australian employers who thought enough about the capabilities of Irish applicants that they were willing to bring them halfway around the world to take up positions.

And analysis of the age grouping is similarly disheartening if you believe that our best and brightest should stay at home.

The largest cohort of successful visa applicants were 1,093 Irish aged between 25 and 29.

One imagines that many of this age group left because they had the noose around their neck of a house or apartment in such negative equity that they concluded that building any kind of prosperity in Ireland was impossible within their working life.

The next biggest grouping were the 749 visas granted to those aged between 30 and 34.

It is easy to imagine the family tragedies that have ensued; of now elderly parents left behind; of grandchildren seen on Skype but never cuddled by their grandmother; of family businesses and family farms abandoned.

And it is Ireland's young men who make up most of the new Irish wave in Australia.

In all, 73 per cent of successful applicants were men, 27 per cent were women.

There were 275 who described themselves as either carpenters, or carpenter/joiners, 148 electricians, 63 programme or project administrators, 57 accountants, 57 bricklayers, 54 civil engineers, 45 plumbers, 38 information and organisation professionals and 971 others were described as having skilled trades or professions.

There were also 37 motor mechanics, among them Padraic O'Neill who, along with his wife Olivia and their baby son Patrick, were featured in a heartbreaking segment on RTE's Ear to the Ground programme just last week. The programme followed them as they made the journey in March of this year from Killucan, in Co Westmeath, and headed for the dusty plains of Birdsville in the Australian outback to work in a vast cattle station.

There was an aching poignancy to interviews with Padraic's parents, decent hardworking people who have seen a beloved son leave home along with a cherished daughter-in-law and a much-loved grandson.

Yet the O'Neills' story is a parable of Ireland in 2011. Padraic started a business specialising in auto electronics. Even at the end there was plenty of work to be had. The problem was getting paid for it.

It must have been a bittersweet night as the O'Neills of Killucan sat down to watch the programme. There must have been joy to see how well the couple had settled in Australia, and sadness that everything the couple said suggested they would not be coming home to Westmeath anytime soon.

Who can blame them? With unemployment now touching 14.5 per cent, emigration will continue to climb as it has done since 2008.

It's not just Australia.

Analysis by the Central Statistics Office show that in the year up to April last, 40,200 Irish citizens upped sticks and left -- up from 27,700 the previous year.

Young people are leaving in droves, seeing no future for themselves in the Republic.

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) forecasts that 75,000 people will emigrate from Ireland next year and in an unusually gloomy analysis earlier this year the same government think-tank warned that 200,000 people may be forced to emigrate between now and 2015 if unemployment is not addressed.

The impact on communities has been breathtaking. Round Towers GAA club has been forced to cut the number of teams it has lining out in the Dublin county championships.

The plumbers, the carpenters, the electricians and the college boys who make up their teams are in Canada and New Zealand and London and America, as well as Australia.

In Kerry, the Kingdom's newly elected chairman Patrick O'Sullivan now sees emigration as the greatest challenge facing the GAA.

"I don't think that people realise that the west of Ireland is being cleaned out, with all the young people leaving.

"Emigration is a big problem. The clubs are the face of the parish. If they disappear in the morning then the parish loses its identity. If you go to London now, the place is full of Irish people," he said.

No one doubts that Taoiseach Enda Kenny, as a Mayoman, retains at least the folk memory of what emigration has done to the west of Ireland.

"This is something I have seen as a child so many times. I come from an area where emigration was endemic unfortunately for economic reasons," he said.

"I get contacted by young people from America, from Canada, from Australia, on a regular basis," he told political reporters in his pre-Christmas briefing.

"My preference of course is a situation where they can have jobs and a career here. The young people will always want to be where the action is," he said.

"Always want to be where the action is". . . Really Enda? Is that why they are leaving? To be where the action is?

Tens of thousands of families around the country with their loved ones flung across the globe would bitterly argue that glib assessment as they celebrate a "quiet Christmas".

This is a forced emigration; our best and brightest lost because they had no hope and no faith. Good luck to them all.

Sunday Independent