Trace your heritage and find your family tree on a visit to Ireland

For such a wee country, the extended Irish diaspora is impressively far-flung. By 1890, 40 percent of Irish-born people had migrated abroad, and in 1892 the first person shuttled through Ellis Island was 17-year-old Annie Moore from Cobh, in County Cork. Today more than 80 million descendants sip their ancestrally-earned Guinness, from Australia to Argentina, and heritage tourism to the motherland is booming.

The Emerald Isle heartily embraces the interest. In 2016, EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands opened its doors. A visit ($19) can include delving into emigrants’ letters and historical videos, or immersing yourself in the narratives of offspring, like Barack Obama, whose third great-grandfather emigrated from Moneygall.

EPIC also houses the Irish Family History Centre ($22, or $39 combined with EPIC), where visitors can access digital records and consult privately with genealogists ($62 for a half hour, $106 for an hour).

Aer Lingus offers a “Discover Your Roots” package beginning at $1,441 per person for a six to eight-night package, which includes a genealogy visit at the Irish Family History Centre, admission to the EPIC Emigration Museum, accommodation and a rental car, so after sleuthing you can “road trip through your roots,” perhaps even to a specific address.

The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, a five-star property historically significant as the birthplace of the Irish constitution in 1922, takes concierge services to the next level. Since 2007, the hotel has been offering the world’s only “genealogy butler,” Helen Kelly, on staff.

A member of Accredited Genealogists Ireland, Kelly’s services include an hour-long consultation, or “empowerment session,” for $206. Guests wishing to participate fill out information before their stay, like the name and approximate year of birth of their Irish-born ancestor and the date and place of marriage.

But wait, isn’t that the knowledge you’d be coming to Kelly to get?

“That’s not the way it works,” she says. “People… need to do their research of ancestral records. The rule of thumb is to start it with themselves, and work back through records online, like the US census.”

Kelly then goes into “detective mode” as she builds her clients’ family tree, utilizing the National Library of Ireland, National Archives of Ireland, Valuation Office and the Registry of Deeds.

Even if she finds no current relations, Kelly encourages a visit to the ancestral land to perhaps have a chance encounter that would lead them to a living relative. “Walk gently,” she advises. And be patient. “One needs to spend a little bit of time. You just never know. We have long memories in Ireland.”

Long memories were extremely advantageous for Jim Regan. When the 72-year-old retired banker started his research in 2002, online records were scarce, but he knew a little about his heritage: his great-grandmother and great-grandfather both emigrated to New York from Kilfinane, County Limerick.

“I read someplace that you should just address [a letter] to the editor of the local newspaper with the names and the time you’re interested in,” he said. Astonishingly, the local Kilfinane paper published it, and Regan began receiving correspondence from sources acquainted with his family. When he and his wife later made a trip to Kilfinane, the response was overwhelming.

The priest at the local parish invited them to dig through the records and another gentleman took them to the area where his great-grandparents would have had their business, a barrel cooperage. “It was just unbelievable,” says Regan.

For those who want to get started on tracing their genealogy, Regan and Kelly say the most important thing is talking to your relatives to find out what you can. Then work your way through the records.

In addition to the US census free resources include the National Archives of Ireland census; FamilySearch, run by the Church of Latter Day Saints, and Irish Geneology run by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Then there’s commercial indexes like Ancestry.com, the UK-based FindMyPast and RootsIreland. You can also search the Facebook pages of Ireland’s county genealogy groups.

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