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I happened to be at an Irish Airport last year and I witnessed many people returning home for the holiday season to spend some time with their families. The young people had an aura of confidence and prosperity about them and it is great to be able to make the journey home with greater frequency these days. The exodus from Ireland has slowed down dramatically over the past decade and we are now being visited by other races and cultures rather than having to leave ourselves. This was not always the case, though.
Many of our people left their familiar surroundings for a life of hardship with the spade and hod to help rebuild Britain after the ravages of the Second World War. A dire economic situation prevailed in Ireland during the 1950’s, and our greatest export during this decade was our people. Our policies and strategies were wrong, we thought that we could make Ireland self-sufficient internally, but the stark reality was much different. The Country was spinning out of economic control, and over sixty thousand people every year were leaving our shores.
After thirty years of freedom, the Country was almost going out of business by the mid 1950’s. De Valera’s vision of a self-sufficient Ireland, frugal and with comely maidens dancing at the crossroads was extremely flawed and very out of touch with reality. We were obsessed with putting people back on the land and this was never going to solve our bigger economic problem. The people were being suffocated by Irish Nationalism and the winds of change were beginning to blow strongly. As a Senior Government Minister from the 1940’s onwards, Lemass was becoming increasingly worried about the way things were going. As a pragmatist, he knew that we would have to look externally in order to bring us in line with the social and economic conditions of the other European countries.
 He started to strengthen Bord Failte and he figured that the more people that saw the Country the greater the publicity we would get. We may not have had the best facilities at the time, but the people were generally very warm and friendly. Our tourist industry was built on the quality of our people. Lemass also encouraged a young Economist at the Department of Finance, Ken Whittaker, to see what was needed to give the country a kick start. Out of this strategy came the now famous ‘Programme for Economic Development’, published in 1958.
Even though De Valera’s policies and beliefs lay in more insular solutions, he was practical enough not to stand in the way of progress. The new policies were also supported by the Opposition Parties. Any plan was certainly better than no plan at all. After this, there was no looking back. The Multinationals were encouraged to invest in the Country, and this, along with the emergence of free Secondary education in the mid 1960’s, kick-started the beginnings of an economy that we are bearing the fruits of Today.
 None of this would have happened without a visionary like Sean Lemass. He was certainly ahead of his time, any by his astute social and economic policies, brought Ireland out of a terminal decline and gave us hope and confidence as we headed towards the 21st century. Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience. Sean Lemass asked if we had the confidence and belief in ourselves, and that we would have to take the future on board.
The emigrants of the 1950’s arrived in England to a lifetime of back breaking labour, carrying with them proud Irish names, which 500 years earlier bore the names of chieftains and poets. The sword and the pen were now exchanged for the spade and the wheelbarrow and they made the best of their existence in these new, unfamiliar and sometimes hostile surroundings. Many parishes, and the country as a whole were very grateful for the money that they were able to send back home. This helped, in no small way, to becoming another piece of the mosaic which would eventually help us on our way to a greater level of prosperity.
It is heart breaking to see many of them alone, without hope, their bodies bent and arthritic after many decades of wettings on the building sites. We owe them one, and we need a greater level of initiative from our Government, by way of a sponsored fund, to bring them back to Ireland to live in comfortable accommodation for the remainder of their days. It was a social tragedy that people were forced by economic circumstances to leave family and friends and move to another country in order to make a living. In the days before we became part of the EU these displaced people supported their families at home with regular amounts of money, which made a great difference in those hard pressed days of another era.
This article is dedicated to all the people who left these shores over 60 years ago and managed to find their way back, but more especially to those who made the journey from the land of their birth and would never return home again. They were indeed reluctant heroes in an age that is now dimming into distant memory.
The phrase ‘the men who built Britain’ was more than an idle boast. It was a statement of pride in the reputation for industry and capacity for hard work earned by our people - President Michael D. Higgins

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