A number of years ago, Helen Kelly was walking past the Shelbourne hotel on her way to work when she had a brainwave. "I thought, 'Hmm, lovely hotel. Very historical hotel. I wonder if they would like to avail of the services of a resident genealogist'," she recalls.
A professional and accredited genealogist with decades of experience under her belt, Kelly decided to approach the hotel to see if they would be interested. She soon met with the general manager, who decided to appoint her as the hotel’s resident “genealogy butler”, a term he invented.
That was back in 2007. Since then, Kelly has offered a consultancy service to guests who are staying at the hotel and wish to investigate their family tree. The way it works is simple. Guests fill out a form with details of their Irish-born ancestors and she sits down to offer them advice on how they might go about accessing records and conducting their own research.
The pandemic has put a halt to all in-person consultations but Kelly has teamed up with the hotel to offer remote genealogical consultations over Zoom and over the phone. After all, just because you can’t travel doesn’t mean you can’t travel back in time.
I recently decided to sample the service. Going into it, I knew little about my ancestors on my mother's side beyond the fact that they were from Co Kilkenny – a hard fact for me to stomach as a proud Waterford woman.
At the beginning of our phone consultation, Kelly is quick to point out that I won’t be presented with an elaborate family tree at the end. After all, this isn’t an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Instead, she tells me that I should think of it as an “empowerment session”.
“It’s to introduce you to how you do your ancestral research and how to use online records,” she says. “I will introduce you to those websites and tell you about other records that are available in record offices.”
Indeed, there are far more records freely available than you may have realised. While records housed in the Public Records Office were tragically destroyed in a fire during the Civil War, census records from 1901 and 1911 are online. Civil records – birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates – for limited periods are also available as are church and land records.
According to Kelly, most of us can expect to be able to trace our lineage back to the early to mid-1800s. “Some people are very determined to get back to the Middle Ages and that’s not possible with Irish research,” she says.
When it comes to starting a journey into your ancestral past, Kelly says you “commence with the most recent known event and then you work systematically back in time”.
For me, that meant starting with the marriage of my great-grandparents, Patrick Kennedy and Johanna Grace. With Kelly's assistance, I located their marriage certificate online and discovered that they were married in 1920 in Glenmore, Co Kilkenny.
The certificate revealed that my great-grandmother’s residence at the time of her marriage was Rathinure, a small Kilkenny townland. Having never visited Rathinure, Kelly suggests that I do so sometime.
“We’re not just descended from our ancestors but we’re also greatly influenced by the landscape that cradled our ancestors,” she says.
"A lot of people want to get back farther and farther and never think about 'Where is this landscape? Was I ever there? Did I ever take myself there?' Rural Ireland hasn't really changed hugely in the last 100 years even. It's lovely, in my opinion, to take yourself there and allow that landscape to speak to you."
From there, we tracked down Johanna's birth certificate. Much to my delight, I see she was born nearly exactly 100 years before me in August 1892. "Birthdays, I find, are fascinating," says Kelly, sensing my excitement. Her birth certificate reveals other pertinent details, too. Her parents were Richard and Bridget Grace (née Prendergast). Her father was a farmer.
That discovery leads us to go in search of my great-great-grandparents' marriage certificate. It shows that they were wed in 1891 in Co Kilkenny. Their fathers' names – John Grace and Richard Prendergast – were listed on the marriage certificate, but not their mothers'. A sign of the times, says Kelly.
This is one of the advantages of having Kelly there to serve as my genealogy sensei. She is able to interpret documents and offer insights that may otherwise pass me by. For instance, she notices a discrepancy in how the ages of my great-great-grandparents were reported between the 1901 and 1911 census and posits that the pair may have misreported their ages to save their blushes over the fact that my great-great-grandmother was older than her husband.
I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a small part of me that hoped we might uncover someone exciting, such as an aristocrat or an outlaw. However, it quickly becomes clear that I come from a long line of poor Kilkenny farmers.
Nonetheless, there is something powerful and even poignant about rooting through these birth certificates, marriage certificates or property records and seeing my ancestors’ names as well as their, frankly, stunning handwriting.
It's a reminder that not only am I an O'Connor, but I'm also a Kennedy, a Grace and a Prendergast.
This period represents an opportunity to reconnect with our heritage and even gain some perspective, says Kelly.
“At a certain stage of our lives we begin to appreciate more deeply who our ancestors were, what they did, how they survived. Covid is underlining this. How are we surviving this during these times? Do we realise that 100 years ago our ancestors were dealing with the Spanish flu and that flu continued until 1925?
“I think now that we are confined to the four walls of our house, it’s a very good time to think about this and appreciate that we are not the only ones who have had to endure these strange times.”
A virtual consultation with Helen Kelly, including a personalised research programme, costs €180 and is available from theshelbourne.com/genealogy