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"Home is where the heart is" - the story about seeking ancestors and becoming American

"Home is where the heart is" - the story about seeking ancestors and becoming American
Author: Stefanie Ullrich
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"My mother's family is Greek and French, and my Dad's is German" (Santos and Yan, 2010, p.60). Because of migration worldwide, almost everybody can trace their family lineage back to another country. This applies especially for the USA where finding your roots has become a synonym for one of the most popular free time activities. In the tourism sector this phenomenon is referred to ancestral or genealogical tourism.

Our fast moving and high-tech spoiled society helps to increase the interest in genealogy by using the Internet (Josiam and Frazier, 2008). It enables descendants to access a much bigger amount of information in different archives worldwide (Santos and Yan, 2010). Moreover, specified companies provide homepages, such as net.roots or ancestry.com, so that descendants are just one click away from finding their past (Josiam and Frazier, 2008). However, only the act of travelling will build a real relationship with ancestors.

Genealogy is seen as a special combination of travelling and "authentic cultural experiences" (Russell, 2008, p. 113). Statistics show that with the growing interest of genealogy also tourist numbers in various countries increased since the mid-90s (Santos and Yan, 2010). Respondents claim to find their identity and thus feel save, stable and certain continuity (Basu, 2004). Knowing about ancestors is also seen as an important part of being a family and strengthens this characteristic by passing stories of family members along (Santos and Yan, 2010).

The fact that especially Americans are keen on genealogy is related to being a "nation of immigration" (McCain and Ray, 2003). It has been stated that finding your roots is part of "becoming American" (Santos and Yan, 2010, p. 65). The most connected countries to the USA are Ireland and Scotland whose tourism sector benefits from the majority of annual American tourists who usually spend more and stay longer than other visitors. In 2009, 814000 American tourists came, compared to other European countries as Germany with only 406 000 visitors (Fáilte Ireland, 2010). Americans are fond of the "Irishness" (Wright, 2009, p. 24) effected by Irish musicians, poets and novelists. It even reaches the point that being Irish is seen as a status symbol in America. Nowadays there are so called "wannabe Irish" (Wright, 2009 p. 27) who would be privileged to have Irish ancestors. The great US-admiration of Ireland goes even thus far that they title Ireland as their "51st state" (Wright, 2009, p.30). In addition, nostalgia which refers to the remembrance and personal memories of the past motivates tourists to return to homeland. The past is associated with positive aspects such as joy and beauty, whereas the present is part of the "ugly and frightening" (Caton and Santos, 2007, p. 373) society.

Considering all those facts, the question arises why descendants and particularly Irish-Americans do not easily return to their homeland and live with their new discovered identity.

Though, the other case is the norm. Instead, the majority of US-Americans is moving to Mexico, Panama, South America, Canada, Spain or New Zealand if they are moving abroad (Kobayashi and Ray, 2005; Migration Policy Institute, 2006). To the main groups belong retirees and younger people, who appreciate the constant temperatures and lower lifestyle expenses (Associated Content, 2005). Return migration brings numerous problems along as for example to re-emigrate, feeling estranged or experiencing culture shocks (Ni Laoire, 2008). In the case of returning descendants, there are two possible chances. On the one hand their integration becomes easier because of ancestral relations towards the place or on the other hand it becomes even more difficult, due to the fact that they do not know anybody or anything about it except facts from documents (Hall, 2002). In total 221,000 people who were born in Ireland returned during the last 15 years. Usually they came back because of family issues, health problems of parents or offering children a quiet childhood (Ni Laoire, 2007, p. 333). According to the Central Statistics Office, it appears that there have been 573,000 immigrants and 651,000 people leaving Ireland in 2009. Amongst those were only 11,000 Americans immigrating which is a decrease of the numbers of 28,000 Americans to the previous years (Central Statistics Office, 2009, p. 2-3). Those numbers and the enthusiasm which the Americans show towards their Irish ancestors and the country itself are contradictory. Despite reintegration problems, the main issue why Irish-Americans are not returning might be that they only have a special bonding to their Irish past on paper.

All in all, the great interest of genealogy cannot be denied and a particular importance towards family and nationalities becomes apparent. Literature often compares the relationship between Ireland and the USA as a "big brother, little brother" (Wright, 2008, p. 90) situation. However, this paper identified that the affiliation of Americans and the hobby of seeking their ancestor in Ireland is not enough to make the decision to actually return to their home country.

Josiam, B. and Frazier, R. (2008): Who am I? Where did I come from? Where do I go to find out? Genealogy, the internet, and tourism. Tourismo: an international multidisciplinary Journal of Tourism. 3 (2). pp. 35-56.

Santos, C. and Yan, G. (2010): Genealogical Tourism: a phenomenological examination. Journal of Travel Research. 49 (1). pp. 56-67

Wright, A. (2008): Managing the American tourist experience in Ireland: an emotional context. International Journal of Business and Management. 3 (8). pp. 85-91.