Genealogy books

At Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel, a genealogy butler can trace your Irish roots

Book now: The Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin

For Marcia DeSanctis, author of the next travel memoir A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Troubled Life, his Irish heritage has always played second fiddle to his Italian roots. “The Irish part of my family had 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 to his native village. So, I felt a strong connection with Italy because it was so palpable.

But when a trip to Europe brought DeSanctis to Dublin earlier this year, it sparked interest in the most forgotten part of his DNA. And by a stroke of luck, she discovered her hotel, the great lady of the city, the Shelbourne— actually employs a genealogical butler. Guests can send relevant information, such as ancestor names, birth and death dates, and village names, to resident genealogist Helen Kelly, who can then sift through the records to help paint a more complete picture. ‘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 quite simple: after receiving relevant details and completing her research, she schedules an hour-long meeting to share everything she has discovered (in person or via Zoom). From there, she can direct interested visitors to one of five registration offices in Dublin. “My consultation with the client eliminates the loss of time on their part,” she says. “I know from my research online which particular desk will best serve their purpose for the next phase of their search.” These offices include everything from the General Register Office for births, marriages and deaths to the National Library of Ireland, which “holds a large number of records, including Roman Catholic parish registers up to about 1880,” notes she.

Through his conversation with Kelly in Ireland, DeSanctis is one of many visitors who was able to find their family tree in these public records. Some 70 million people around the world claim Irish heritage, and for those lucky enough to be able to travel to investigate their roots, Ireland tries to make it easy, with or without the help of a genealogical butler. The government even hosts its own website,, which lists parish registers and civil registers of births, marriages and deaths. Those who can prove a grandparent was born in Ireland can even apply for Irish citizenship. Whereas an Irish passport is bound for third strongest in the worldAccording to Arton Capital’s Passport Index, a ranking of the world’s passports, this could save you a lot of travel hassle depending on where you currently claim citizenship.

Americans (and to a lesser extent Canadians) are by far the largest percentage of tourists Kelly sees. Around 31 million Americans can trace their roots to Ireland, so it’s no surprise the country does a good business with American tourists looking for their lineage. The main exodus to America took place from 1840 to 1870, the famine years in Ireland. “That’s when it really exploded,” Kelly explains. “But since then, we have always exported people,” she adds, laughing.

Want to untangle your family tree in Ireland? Ask Helen Kelly, genealogical butler of the Shelbourne Hotel.

Courtesy of The Shelbourne Hotel

Given that “the vast majority of these Irish ancestors arrived in the United States over a century ago, their experiences and identities are far from living memory,” says Christopher Maginn, professor of history at the ‘Fordham University. Irish Americans looking to learn more about their genealogy may have no recourse but to do some 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 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 Irish people, “the process can mean a lot to 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 meeting distant Irish cousins.” When asked if she’s ever helped a hotel guest find a surprising family connection, Kelly hesitates. “I’ve had wonderful experiences with guests, but I’m not free to start sharing stories,” she says.

Kelly has seen an uptick in Irish heritage travel since 2000 (she thinks the turn of the millennium has 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 a particularly good time to discover your own connection to the Emerald Isle.

“There’s so much publicity around the commemoration of our independence, so certainly those of Irish descent are probably more aware of their Irish identity and want to know more,” Kelly says. “I think it’s very good because they are not alone. They not only look at their own family history, but also the history of Ireland. In fact, Kelly’s workplace, 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 Constitution Suite, but the same signature oak tables and chairs remain, a tangible memorial to some of Ireland’s most revered leaders and their work.

As for DeSanctis, his conversation with Kelly revealed a twist in the wanderings of his Irish ancestors. “I always thought they went to Quincy, Massachusetts from Ireland, but it turns out they went to Prince Edward Island in Canada,” she says. “It is interesting to imagine the journey of these people. There was a war in 1798, there was a famine. . . . I don’t know what made them leave, but I’m sure they didn’t want to leave their house. Learning of this unexpected Canadian connection inspired DeSanctis, an avid traveler, to take a trip to the Maritime Province very soon. Her hope is that researching records there will help complete the details of her family’s Irish history, including the specific towns from which they emigrated. “I always wanted to leave [to Prince Edward Island],” she says. “Now turns out I have mega-roots over there.”