JUST how much emigration is an issue in the Irish election can be gauged by the fact that two of the first three questions in the leaders debate held on Monday night were on that topic.

Enda Kenny of Fine Gael, Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail, Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, Eamonn Gilmore of the Labor Party and John Gormley of the Green Party all squared off in a Dublin studio before a live audience.

It was the highlight of the campaign so far, the moment when the leaders finally met each other and leveled their broadsides.
The first questioner was an elderly man from Cavan who stated in a shaky voice, and seemed close to tears, that three of his sons had now emigrated, two to London, one to Bahrain.

He found it hard to articulate his words, clearly close to a breakdown. "I'll never see my grandchildren," he stated poignantly.
His face said everything you needed to know about what the end result of bankers, greed and government complicity has meant to the ordinary people of Ireland.

Forget about all the flash figures and the billions being argued about. The sheer human cost of what has happened to families across Ireland was etched in clear worry lines on that old gentleman's face.

This, is what he was saying, is what all the fraud and cover up means to me and my kin, probable separation forever from my grandchildren.

Adams pointed it out in his answer that it was a scene being repeated across Ireland. By this time next week another 1,000 people will have left Ireland, he stated.

The poor father had put a human face on a very great tragedy indeed.

How deep that tragedy goes was exemplified by the third question from the studio audience. It was from a young Meath GAA official who talked about what was happening to his local club because of emigration.

Once, he said, the parking lot at the club was full of cars, craic and conversation. Now the side could barely field a team.
He talked of the young players leaving for foreign fields and the impact, not just on the club but in the rural communities all over Ireland.

It was a heartfelt plea yet again for politicians not to ignore the terrible human costs of the massive recession.
The GAA is the very heartbeat of rural communities in Ireland. It is the center of almost every activity, and its strength is the great energy and commitment of the local people who keep the flags flying.

Now the kids are leaving and the GAA is bereft again. They will end up playing in Gaelic Park in New York, Ruislip in London and elsewhere across the globe, but they will be lost, perhaps forever, to the little villages and towns that saw them as their lifeblood.

The five party leaders tried their best to paint a picture where those kids could come back to a new Ireland, but it all seemed a trifle disengaged. They were much more comfortable haggling over the minutiae of how much the EU/International Monetary Fund bailout package was going to actually cost, and figures in the billions were being tossed around like confetti.

I felt an eerie sense of deja vu. During the 1980s a similar exodus had occurred in Ireland. Also at that time, until they were forced to, the politicians on all sides pretty much ignored the problem.

Some even claimed the island was too small to support four million people and some inevitably had to leave. It was the kind of insular political thinking that cost Ireland dear.

This time around it was arrogance more than insularity that prevented the government from seeing what was coming. They repeatedly dismissed warnings from emigrant groups here in the U.S. that the leave takings of the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s would be repeated again, and there was a dire need to get some form of legal visas for Irish coming here.

Now the chickens have left home to roost on foreign fields, and we are left with sad old men dreaming of grandchildren they may never see.