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Why exodus of brightest minds, of dear family and friends, leaves us poorer

Early in the summer of 2012 I wrote in this column about my eldest son leaving Ireland for the bright lights of New York.

He didn't need to go but had sought a transfer within the global company for which he works as a trader. He had seen a lot of the world in the summers of his college years: now he fancied New York.

So his going was different, I wrote, and, unlike previous generations of young Irish men and women, notably in the Fifties and the downturn of the Eighties, he was not leaving because of economic considerations.

The thrust of that column was to the effect that emigration no longer tore families apart because the new digital communications and cheap travel had well and truly given birth to the global village. I was wrong, as I now see it.

Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold, or some other crop, but Ireland has had only one export and that is its people. So said John F Kennedy on his presidential visit to Ireland in June 1963.

For generations emigration left its toll on this island when families were torn apart as fathers and sons took the boat to England or America or further afield in search of those streets paved with gold.

Now, emigration is once again taking its toll. Such going is now at its highest point since modern records began in 1987. Looking at the latest figures for the island of Ireland as a whole – 25,000 people left Northern Ireland last year – around 300 people a day are leaving – or 12 people an hour, or one every five minutes. A total of 114,000 left the island between April 2012 and April 2013.

Speaking during a recent visit to Belfast, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore – a poll this week cites Gerry Adams as most popular choice for next Tanaiste – admitted he was concerned.

"One of the things that we are trying to do is to ensure that we create employment and attract investment so that as many of those people as possible will have an opportunity of coming back and working in this country," he said.

The latest figures show the majority of emigrants are young. Two-fifths are 24 and under, while another two-fifths come from the 25 to 44 age bracket.

About 202,000 people aged 15 to 24 – the equivalent of, say, the population of Cork city – have emigrated from this island since the start of the financial crisis.

Emigrants are increasingly Irish nationals rather than foreigners going home. Two-thirds who left in the past 12 months were Irish; five years ago this was just a quarter.

The most popular destination is the UK, followed by Australia. (There is an irony here somewhere with both these destinations having their economic and migrant problems).

The ongoing scourge of emigration has left "broken hearts" in families and a lot of "justified anger", according to Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam in Galway who said last week there were "impoverished" communities left behind as the young continued to leave.

"There is something particularly sad about seeing rural areas today that cannot field a football team because the young men and girls have gone off to Australia and Canada," he said.

Referring to people's anger, he said many believed that had those responsible for the economic crisis "been less arrogant", they might have been able to take "corrective action" before the situation reached the stage it is at now.

I saw the large families on both my parents' sides parted because of migration with half of the collective 16 leaving Ireland with not much else save the clothes on their backs.

My father pined after his younger brothers for years, felt they had been 'hard done by' in having to leave, and the youngest, much to my father's sadness, he only ever got to see once in all the intervening years. The Old Man kept promising he would one day get to Australia to see young Joe 'one more time' but never quite made it and the two died in old age, just a year or so apart.

About my eldest leaving Ireland – I wrote last year that, the probability is, he is not gone forever. A year on, he and I both know the reality is, and will continue to be, quite the opposite. And now my youngest boy – and his very qualified girlfriend – are talking of Canada when he finishes his business degree, citing, despite the recession being global, a better quality of living.

His older brother had hoped I could go to New York to celebrate his 30th birthday next week. Short of him sending me the fare – and I don't wish that – I cannot make it, my income being at its lowest in years because of recession and austerity.

Governments and soothsayers talk of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. I, for the life of me, cannot now see the tunnel, never mind any light.

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