Oyster Q&A: Discover Your Irish Heritage with the Shelbourne's Genealogy Butler

Unique amenities and personalized services are becoming increasingly in-demand at luxury hotels. Some might label these services over-the-top — and some of them are — but many of the butlers, sommeliers, and experts of the hotel world are performing real and important services for guests. And we here at Oyster want to hear their stories — especially if they include exciting and heartwarming tales from Ireland's rich past! Descendants of the Emerald Isle are scattered far and wide around the globe, yet many often find themselves returning home to discover their roots. And giving them a helping hand is Helen Kelly, the Genealogy Butler at The Shelbourne Dublin, A Renaissance Hotel. A professional genealogist, Kelly has been aiding the Irish in their quest for their ancestral history since the 1980s, and has worked with The Shelbourne since 1995 as, quite literally, the only Genealogy Butler in the world.

The Shelbourne's Genealogy Butler, Helen Kelly,
The Shelbourne's Genealogy Butler, Helen Kelly,

The Shelbourne Dublin itself is a historic icon located on St. Stephen's Green. Built in 1824, the property has witnessed major historical events firsthand (the Irish Constitution was signed here in 1922) and has hosted plenty of famous guests (including Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Princess Grace Kelly, Bill Clinton, and Bono).

Hotel guests, who perhaps get inspired by their storied surroundings, can make an appointment with Kelly to review whatever information they have on their ancestors. She will then be able to offer guidance on how to best track down more information in a city where the mass of historical documents and institutions is daunting. Over a one-hour consultation — which costs 100 Euro — guests will receive a full assessment from Kelly on their ancestral history, as well as an overview of the history, culture, and landscape of Ireland.

To read more about Kelly's work as Genealogy Butler, check out our interview after the jump.

Q: What is your professional background? How did you become interested in genealogy?

A: My interest in genealogy stemmed from the 1980s when I met a cousin of my grandmother's who said that her grandfather had been evicted from a large estate in the 1700s. I wanted to find proof. And I went off and did research, and that’s how I began.

I got a lot of information and found evidence that my great-great-great-great-great-something grandfather was evicted from a large estate in the 1790s. I found his birth record from 1750, which is very rare because Irish records formerly began, in most cases, in the 1860s.

I then went on to receive my diploma in local history, and then I applied to the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland – known as APGI – and was admitted membership in 1995. And I’ve been involved in professional genealogy since then, or rather even before then.

Q: Is this service unique to The Shelbourne?

A: The title Genealogy Butler is unique to The Shelbourne, because they registered it. No one else can use it. I had applied to actually a different job at The Shelbourne, but I just suggested to the hiring person that they might be interested in a resident genealogist. And the general manager felt that a resident genealogist would be a good fit at such a historical hotel.

The Shelbourne is rife with Irish history: The nation's constitution was signed in this very room.
The Shelbourne is rife with Irish history: The nation's constitution was signed in this very room.

Q: Why is Dublin a good starting place for guests looking to discover their roots?

A: There’s a lot of material online now, but not all of it. Genealogy can be done in a number of ways. They can start their research online, but then they have to go to the national institutions. I offer an empowerment service, if you like. If people come to stay at The Shelbourne and see that a Genealogist Butler is there, they send me the information and I assess it. We meet for an hour and we go through the information. The Shelbourne is beautifully and very strategically placed within walking distance of the four major research institutions in Dublin. The National Library of Ireland is about a three-minute walk away.

Q: Do many guests make use of the service?

A: Yes, it’s been very popular. The Shelbourne is a lovely ambiance. It’s a very historical hotel. When you sit in a landscape like this you get a sense of history, and getting to talk about your personal history in that setting is a bonus.

Q: Can locals ask for your help as well?

A: It’s only available to guests, but I meet with people outside of the hotel. I meet with descendants of the diaspora, visit various depositories, and carry off research on behalf of clients. It's very daunting for people who don’t know the city.

Q: How long does it take to put together a report? How far in advance should a guest contact you?

A: At least an hour, but it depends on the family. It’s most useful because the thing about family history…it’s about doing the paper trail well and getting valid research. The paper trail is a very important means to an end.

What I endeavor to give to the guests as well is an introduction to Irish history and culture. And I introduce them to the landscape as well. Because many people believe that when they come to Ireland they have to go to the county of their family’s birth right away. But that’s not always right. It’s best to start in Dublin in the Republic of Ireland — or in Belfast in Northern Ireland — first, because this is where most of the official records are kept.

People come to Dublin for a limited amount of time and I help them make the best use of it. It’s not a research package, it’s an empowerment package.

Q: How far back have you been able to trace someone's heritage?

A: In order to carry out valid research in Ireland, you are dependent on the existence of church records prior to 1864 – that was when birth registries started being kept officially on a national level. The majority of Roman Catholic registries date back only to the 1800s, but some go back to the 1700s. People with wealthy backgrounds – who owned large estates, or were merchants or traders – that helps because our land registries date back to 1700s.

Q: What is the most important information guests should bring to you when searching for ancestors?

A: The important thing in my book is that they identify the birth county….the majority of people that I meet are descendants of those who left in the 1840s and upwards. There are some that left long before that and we have good results with that, too. Descendants of “famine immigrants” have to find the birthplace and then take themselves to that landscape. It has been preserved. It's great fun for people, and it’s important to just sit and be and imbibe all that it has to offer. That should be the ultimate goal of the Irish descendants.

For a person to walk down a street or a pub where there ancestors did…it’s a goose bump trail, a heritage trail. We have this incessant rain, but the green wraps itself around you in that landscape. It’s lush and it’s rich and it’s comforting.

The Shelbourne Museum features information about the property's rich history.
The Shelbourne Museum features information about the property's rich history.

Q: Who was the most interesting ancestor a guest asked you to help track down?

A: I can’t talk about the specific research because that’s confidential. Everyone is special and the older stories are particularly special. Going off the paper trail, the personal experiences I have had are particularly amazing...You realize that you are bonded to people everywhere.

Twenty years ago, I met a man from New York with his adult daughter that visited Dublin. We engaged in conversation for 10 minutes, when I discovered what his surname was. It was unusual, so I asked where his family was originally from and he wasn't sure. But I noticed that he looked like my brother-in-law, and by that evening I had discovered that it turned out they were first cousins. There are these lovely chance encounters and we can all have these precious moments if we take the time.

In South America, in a library in Buenos Aires, I met a man who, when he heard my Irish accent, came over and we started talking. He said that his family had left in the 1840s. It turned out he was from the same village where I was born, County Westmeath, and I knew the house. My grandfather worked with his.

The Irish are scattered all over the world, but we’re from this small landscape so we’re all connected. Perhaps we’re passing someone by.

Q: Do you have recommendations for people traveling to Dublin looking to discover their roots?

A: Do a cursory search before coming. Ancestry.com is very useful. Family history starts with yourself, and works backward. Speak with your relatives and find out what information you can.

Most of their research should be done in Dublin, they shouldn't immediately fly off to the birth county. Before dashing off to the birth county, do research here, and then look at the local registries and speak with the local librarians.

*Photo courtesy of The Shelbourne Dublin, A Renaissance Hotel.

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