At the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, a Genealogy Butler Can Find Your Irish Roots

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For Marcia DeSanctis, author of the upcoming travel memoir A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life, her Irish heritage had always played second fiddle to her Italian roots. “The Irish part of my family had been somewhat diluted over the generations,” she says. “The Italian side was so much more recent: My grandfather was an immigrant in the 20th century, and he was very connected to the Old World and his home village. So, I felt a strong tie to Italy because it was so palpable.”

But when a trip to Europe brought DeSanctis to Dublin earlier this year, it spurred an interest in the more forgotten part of her DNA. And in a stroke of luck, she discovered her hotel—the city’s grande dame, the Shelbourne—actually employed a genealogy butler. Guests can send relevant information, such as ancestors’ names, dates of birth and death, and names of villages, to resident genealogist Helen Kelly, who can then comb through records to help paint a fuller picture of a family tree.

Since starting at the hotel in 2007, Kelly has helped hundreds of guests like DeSanctis trace their Irish heritage. The process is fairly straightforward: After receiving the relevant details and completing her research, she schedules an hour-long meeting to share everything she has discovered (in person or over Zoom). From there, she can direct interested visitors to one of five record offices in Dublin. “My consultation with the guest eliminates time wasting on their part,” she says. “I know from what I research online what particular office will best serve their purpose for the next phase of their research.” Those offices include everything from the General Register Office for births, marriages, and deaths to the National Library of Ireland, which “holds a great deal of records, including Roman Catholic parish registers up to about 1880,” she notes.

Thanks to her chat with Kelly while in Ireland, DeSanctis is one of many visitors who could find their family tree within these public records. Some 70 million people worldwide claim some Irish heritage, and for those fortunate enough to be able to travel to investigate their roots, Ireland tries to make it easy to do, with or without the aid of a genealogy butler. The government even hosts its own website, irishgenealogy.ie, which lists church records and civil registers of births, marriages, and deaths. Those who can prove that a grandparent was born in Ireland can even apply for Irish citizenship. Considering that an Irish passport is tied for third strongest in the worldaccording to Arton Capital’s Passport Index, a ranking of the world’s passports, this could save quite a few travel headaches depending on where you currently claim citizenship.

Americans (and to a lesser extent Canadians) are by far the largest percentage of tourists that Kelly sees. About 31 million Americans can trace their roots to Ireland, so it’s no surprise that the country does a brisk business with US tourists looking for their lineage. The major exodus to America was from 1840 to 1870, the famine years in Ireland. “That was when it really surged,” says Kelly. “But since that time, we’ve always exported people,” she adds with a laugh.

Want to unravel your family tree in Ireland? Just ask Helen Kelly, genealogy butler of the Shelbourne hotel.

Courtesy of The Shelbourne Hotel

Since “the vast majority of those Irish ancestors arrived in the United States over a century ago, their experiences and identities are well out of living memory,” says Christopher Maginn, a professor of history at Fordham University. Irish Americans looking to learn about their genealogy may not have any other recourse except to do the research. “So, when we combine that with the fact that American tourists spend more and stay longer in Ireland than visitors from any other country, it makes good sense for an Irish hotel to have a genealogist on hand.”

While Maginn notes that the trope of the American seeking roots in Ireland can sometimes be seen as a stereotype among the Irish, “the process can have great meaning for Americans,” he says. “In making this cultural pilgrimage, American tourists are following in the footsteps of famous Irish Americans, like John F. Kennedy and even Barack Obama, who traveled to Ireland and found themselves confronted by distant Irish cousins.” When asked if she’s ever helped a hotel guest find a surprising family connection, Kelly demurs. “I’ve had wonderful experiences with guests, but I’m not at liberty to start sharing stories,” she says.

Kelly has seen an uptick in Irish heritage travel since 2000 (she thinks the turning of the millennium inspired people to trace their roots). Since records like the 1901 and 1911 censuses are now available online, it’s that much easier to find your lineage. Plus, 2022 is the centenary of the signing of the Irish Constitution, so it seems an especially auspicious time to discover your own connection to the Emerald Isle.

“There is so much publicity around the commemoration of our independence, so certainly those of Irish ancestry are probably more aware of their Irishness and want to learn more,” Kelly says. “I think that’s very good because they’re not alone. They’re not only looking at their own family history, but also the history of Ireland.” In fact, Kelly’s place of employment, the Shelbourne, was where the Constitution of the Irish Free State was signed, in what was then Room 112. Today, the room has been renamed the Constitution Suite, but the same oak tables and chairs from the signing remain, a tangible memorial to some of Ireland’s most revered leaders and their work.

As for DeSanctis, her chat with Kelly revealed a twist in her Irish forebears’ peregrinations. “I had always thought they had gone to Quincy, Mass. from Ireland, but it turns out they went to Prince Edward Island in Canada,” she says. “It’s interesting to just imagine the journey these people were on. There was a war in 1798, there was a famine. . . . I don’t know what made them go, but I’m sure they didn’t want to leave their home.” Learning about this unexpected Canadian connection has inspired DeSanctis, a frequent traveler, to make a trip to the maritime province sometime soon. Her hope is that researching records there will help fill in details of her family’s Irish history, including the specific towns from which they emigrated. “I’ve always wanted to go [to Prince Edward Island],” she says. “Now it turns out I have mega-roots there.”

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