Political Notebook: Emigration is deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche

Emigration. The word is deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche.

Emigration. The word is deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche.

And when the Irish talk about emigration, we generally mean the forced kind. Voluntary emigration is fine.

There will always be people who want to spread their wings, for a few years or for ever, and more luck to them.

But our sad history of forced emigration is a blot on the Irish historical landscape, a crippling shame.

Decade after wretched decade, with the occasional let-up, we have mercilessly exported our people.

Our human surplus was exported with a particular ruthlessness to other shores. Social unrest was avoided at home. Sadly, some of our politicians are not always aware of the extent of the bitterness of many of those forced to emigrate.

Today, thousands of our young people, the brightest and the best, leave our shores because there is no work at home, Better educated, better prepared, they are going with the advantages many of their predecessors did not have.

But there is the same grief, the sense of the State’s failure. And, yes, the bitterness. Small wonder, then, that there has been such a poor take-up on the offer around the world to people of certificates proving their Irish lineage.

A mere 1,042 Irish Heritage Certificates were issued in the first 13 months of the scheme which targets Ireland’s 60 million-strong diaspora.

The Government has now agreed to extend the contract, for a second year, despite the low intake. And the rules for providing documentary evidence of “Irishness’’ have also been relaxed.


The idea of issuing the certificates arose from the Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh in 2009. Under the scheme, the descendants of Irish citizens who do not themselves qualify for Irish citizenship can be issued with a certificate at a cost of 40 euro.

There is, inevitably, an interest among the offspring of the Irish emigrants where their parents came from. But that does not extend to securing confirmation of their Irish lineage, by way of a certificate, to any great extent.

Perhaps they may be all too aware of the anger of those same parents who had to leave Ireland to secure the basic human right of a job. The failure to take up the offer of the certificates to any significant extent should be a wake-up call to our politicians.

A number of them, over the decades, showed scant regard for those who had left. Those emigrants had no influence because they had no votes. And so they were ignored by politicians back home.

There have always been, of course, the ritual calls from the Opposition benches for votes for emigrants. Like much of the rhetoric of Opposition, they gathered dust in Government.

And, over the decades, there have been the usual ministerial gaffes about emigration being inevitable and all that. Life can sometimes appear to be uncomplicated indeed from the rear seat of a Ministerial car

The biggest gaffe of all, representing a view held by, admittedly, a minority of politicians, given that many are just indifferent, came from one Eamon De Valera as Taoiseach in 1951.

In the light of our sad history of emigration, Dev’s remarks were breathtaking in their arrogance and contempt for those forced to leave.

He argued that “work is available at home, and in conditions infinitely better from the point of view of both health and morals ….There is no doubt that many of those who emigrate could find employment at home at as good, or better, wages – and with living conditions far better – than they find in Britain’’.

Were Enda Kenny to make such remarks today, the outcry would be widespread. He would probably be damaged irreversibly in political terms.

But in 1951, communications were limited. And the Irish were a beaten and subservient people. In historical terms, the motivation of somebody in politics making such a remark must be questioned.

Was he just daft? Or simply an old rogue? Or was it, as most likely, an outburst of anger by somebody who could not possibly take any criticism of any kind on such a sensitive matter?

At the time, Dev lived in a substantial property in south Dublin.

Unlike most families in the country, none of his offspring had to emigrate to find work. So how could he understand the grief and sense of loss of those forced to go?

Come next March, and the celebration of St Patrick’s Day, we will, no doubt, be still reeling from the impact of the Budget.

And we will be bracing ourselves for the property tax scheduled to be introduced in July.

In the run-up to the national feast day, Ministers will, no doubt, be preparing themselves for foreign travel to, presumably, spread the message of a recovering Ireland to the diaspora.

Next year, most of them might well be advised to stay at home.

The pathetic sale of certificates to the Irish diaspora emphasising their lineage should surely encourage Ministers to rethink their flight plans.