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The Old Country

By Daniel Hubbard | April 3, 2011

I just gave a talk about understanding and using maps. Most of my examples were from maps of North America but some were from countries that contributed immigrants to this side of the Atlantic. That is, they were maps of “the old country.” It is an interesting phrase because it sounds like a nickname for a specific place, like “The Old Dominion” or “the Emerald Isle,” but what it actually means depends on the speaker and the listener. If I talk to a group about tracing ancestors back to the old country, it will be translated into a few dozen different places in the listeners minds.

What does that expression, “the old country” actually indicate? We think of it as the place our immigrant ancestors left. My most recent immigrant ancestors came from Canada. I doubt anyone in America would call Canada the old county. I haven’t consulted any Canadians with American ancestors but I doubt America could qualify from their point of view either.

Obviously, our definition of the old country needs to be refined. Perhaps if we make it a far away place from which our ancestors came? That would mean that if I was descended from an Irish family who lived in Canada, then Ireland would be the old country. That seems better but not quite right. What if I was descended from an Dutch family who lived in England before migrating to America? The Netherlands ought to be the old country, I would think. Instead of the old country being far away, maybe the place where an immigrant ancestor was part of a native ethnic group would be a better definition. Ethnicity and culture are somehow central to the old country’s geography.

Where the old country might be is another question. It isn’t just far away. That isn’t the only requirement. I’ve never heard anyone refer to Africa or Asia as the location of the old country. A place simply being in the Old World does not seem to be enough. I might have missed something but Europe seems to be the only continent upon which the old country can be located. For other places, there are other phrases.


Genealogy is about rebuilding lost connections. We track down ancestors. We hunt for them in places we barely knew existed. We learn about past events that altered ancestors lives and perhaps still echo today. We discover cultures that may no longer exist but that once cradled our forebears.

Once a new ancestor is found, we often trace forward and connect with living relatives. The family bonds may have been forgotten by people generations ago but we bring them back.

The concept of the old country seems different. Beyond all the refinements of meaning I’ve given, there is a bit more to it. The old country is also dependent on time, a bit like Brigadoon, that fictional Scottish village that only exists for one day every hundred years, except that the old country once gone, probably never returns.

I’ve discovered ancestral places all over Europe but for me there is no “old country.” I may have built bonds to those places, I may have visited them, but that isn’t enough to make them the old country. My most recent transatlantic immigrants were a family of Potato Famine refugees in the the 1840s. That seems to be simply too long ago. The old country is a place of transmitted memory, transmitted meaning. For the immigrants themselves, it was a place you wish you hadn’t left and yet were fall-down-on-the-knees thankful that you had, a place better remembered than inhabited. Maybe it is that inner conflict that creates the old country.

Our phrase appears to imply not just a connection but a connection that has been passed down intact, not one that has been reconstructed. “The Old Country” is a phrase I never use about my own, rediscovered ancestral places across the sea. On my side of our family there is one and only one story about Europe that has been passed down and it is nothing more than a vague reference to a rather fuzzily defined area of Scotland. There is, in fact, no story, just a thin sliver of memory. An echo of the place where an ancestor lived about two hundred years ago is what remains. It may be a precious connecting thread but it isn’t enough to keep the old country alive.

I suppose if one’s ancestry is less mixed than mine, the old country might hang on longer. It isn’t only a matter of the passage of time but of dilution. I suspect that for one person the old country can be only one place. I’ve never heard anyone talk about “the old countries.” That plural phrase just doesn’t have the emotional connection that “the old country” implies. Too many distinct places or too long ago and the old country simply fades away like Brigadoon into the Highland mist.

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Topics: Genealogy, Memory | 4 Comments »

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4 Responses to “The Old Country”

  1. Greta Koehl Says:
    April 3rd, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    My family and I jokingly refer to Pennsylvania as “The Old Country,” but not because I was born there. Part of it is that many of the members of our parish come from Rusyn-Slovak-Ukrainian families who settled there (and some of those areas used to have such a high concentration of Eastern European immigrants that it really was like “The Old Country”) and because we have such good memories of vacations there.

  2. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    April 4th, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Great! A use of “The Old Country” that is a bit different. I can imagine using the phrase for that. Thanks!

  3. Charles R. Hale Says:
    April 6th, 2011 at 8:17 am

    Wonderful writing, Dan.

    I’m often asked where my family is from. My common response is, “One hundred years ago, NYC; two hundred years ago, Ireland; a thousand years or more, every country that ransacked and pillaged Ireland.”

    I too don’t get hung up on the “old country.” Frankly, like you, I don’t know what it is.

    You wrote, “On my side of our family there is one and only one story about Europe that has been passed down and it is nothing more than a vague reference to a rather fuzzily defined area of Scotland.” Again, I too have had the same experience. We have one story that has passed from Ireland to the present and I do believe that it has become myth rather than reality.

    Interesting subject. Thank you.

    Charles R. Hale

  4. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    April 6th, 2011 at 9:05 am

    Thanks Charles. I really like your response to “where is your family from?” It really gets to the heart of how complicated that question can be and how nebulous it really is. If I try to do the same I can’t be quite a succinct but here goes, “One hundred years ago, Illinois and Wisconsin. Two hundred years ago North America not too far south of the Ohio, not too far north of the St. Lawrence, not too far West of the Mississippi and points in between, plus Ireland and Scotland. One thousand years ago, Northwest Europe.” So much for my “old country.”