The opening of one of Ireland’s most famous festivals had a sombre theme yesterday, when the focus shifted from music to the plight facing the country’s tens of thousands of emigrants.

Festival-goers at the 35th O’Carolan Harp Festival in Keadue, Co. Roscommon included many returning emigrants, who had travelled back as part of The Gathering initiative.

But speaking at the opening of the event yesterday, local TD Denis Naughten reminded the crowds that emigrating families had lost all hope of ever returning home.

Naughten, who was acting as MC at the festival, said the most concerning aspect of the surging emigration figures was the number of families who had decided to move abroad permanently because they see no prospect of making a living in Ireland.

He said:  “They have lost hope – they do not see a future for their families in Ireland.”

The Independent TD reminded festival-goers that last year more than 200 people a day had left Ireland, adding that those forced to leave included “whole families, with deep-rooted ties to this country”.

He continued:  “We are failing to recognise that an economy is there to serve and support a nation, to give people a hand-up rather than a hand-out, to ensure that our children are provided with the skills to achieve their goals in life.”

The former government TD, who lost the Fine Gael whip two years ago because of his opposition to the downgrading of emergency services at his local hospital, also received a loud cheer when he told the crowd you could die of old age and still not receive medical attention.

He also said there was too much focus in politics on the “tradition and problems of the past” than on innovation for today.

The annual festival is held in honour of Turlough O’Carolan, the blind harper and composer who lived near the village.

Amongst those who attended last weekend’s event were harp students from The US, the UK, Japan, France, Italy and Germany.