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Ireland now is Poles apart from the country we knew

On the other side of Dublin's Drumcondra Road just a few hundred yards up from Bertie Ahern's former constituency office and his favourite pub, Fegans, there is a huge advertising banner offering those caught in the recession a new future.

The Contax.ie ad shows the portrait of a man in a builder's safety helmet and beneath him the offer of jobs worth between €1,000 to €3,000 per week. The posts are in areas such as construction and mining. They are of course also positioned in Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East.

This advertisement reflects the growing trend of Irish workers seeking a job or even a better paid one in those parts of the planet where economies are still growing.

Up to 50,000 Irish people most young were estimated to have left the country in 2011 according to the Republic's Central Statistics Office (CSO) and that pattern of migration is set to continue in 2012.

Yet another important, more comprehensive set of data has come out of the CSO lately which shows that while the Irish are migrating in their thousands the Republic continues to absorb tens of thousands of foreign immigrants.

The 2011 Census results have been published. People born outside of Ireland make up 17% of the population, which means the numbers of non-Irish citizens has quadrupled since the last census in 2006.

The years between the current and last census are significant because 2006 was the high water mark of the Celtic Tiger when the country had to import workers to fill gaps in sectors such as building and retail.

And yet while these parts of the economy have been the worst hit, the numbers of foreign immigrants increased. There are now 766,770 non-Irish nationals living in the Republic as of 2011 according to the official figures.

Poles make up the largest group of non-Irish nationals with 122,585 living in the Republic compared to 112,259 from the UK living in the state. They also outnumber southern Irish Protestants as a distinct social group.

The latter fact, given most Poles are Catholics, may on paper give heart to the Irish Catholic hierarchy in terms of rebuilding its position within society. Yet the latest census reveals that Catholicism is the slowest growing religion of nine belief systems in the state. While the Republic's population grew by 348,000 from 2006 the number of those on the census form who ticked the box marked 'Catholic' was 180,000. Moreover, the number of people in the south stating that they have no religion has shot up from 186,000 in 2006 to 270,000 in 2011.

One of the greatest social challenges for the state is how to absorb and integrate their new citizens.

At their first annual conference since last year's electoral mauling Fianna Fail suggested that every school child sings the Irish National Anthem before lessons begin as a means inculcating the notion of republican citizenship in this increasingly diverse nation.

While it is unlikely modern Irish society would take seriously such an American concept, there is a more practical way to improve the integration process for non-nationals.

The census revealed that only 48% of non-Irish citizens spoke English well. However when children of immigrants started going to school the number who could not speak English at primary level fell and this went down further when the children of foreign immigrants went into secondary education.

It will be fascinating to see how the Republic and its agencies try to absorb this new generation and how in turn they will further change the make up of a country that used to be monotone in terms of religion, colour and culture.

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