Dublin hotel's genealogy butler helps guests find their Irish roots

Helen Kelly of The Shelbourne is the world's only genealogy butler.

(Editor's note: This is the latest installment in a our mini-series on some of the most unusual and amazing jobs in the travel industry. Helen Kelly is the world’s only genealogy butler. She works at The Shelbourne Dublin, a hotel in Ireland.)

I’m Helen Kelly, the world’s only genealogy butler, with The Shelbourne, located in the heart of Dublin’s city center. It’s a nice, catchy title, and the hotel has had it registered to keep it that way.

My role is to empower guests to fill in the blanks of their Irish ancestry, which can be quite challenging. In fact, we call my consultations “Empowerment Sessions,” as I provide the tools, resources and, hopefully, good leads to discover all they can about their family history in Ireland. As I know from experience, genealogy is a labor of love – there isn’t always an instant result, but if one keeps at it, it can be rewarding.

I’ve been a professional genealogist since the 1980s, and I bring a lot to my role, with membership in the Accredited Genealogists in Ireland, which is not easy to get into. I’ve served as a consultant genealogist at national repositories including the Genealogical Office of the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives of Ireland. I’ve also lectured on Irish genealogy internationally.

I was drawn to the field in pursuit of my own Irish heritage. It’s an interest that comes to most people at some point -- everyone wants to know who they are.

In my case, a cousin of my grandmother mentioned that a line of our family had been evicted from land holdings back in the 1700s. The family was of mixed religion: At the time, Roman Catholics couldn’t hold large tracts of land, and when the Anglican father died, the rest were evicted. I researched and confirmed the date as 1790. That got me hooked.

I’ve been with The Shelbourne since 2010. It’s a historic property – the first constitution of Ireland was drafted in a guest room here in 1922. I used to pass by the hotel every morning on my way to do research and eventually I was approached with the idea of offering a genealogical service. The general manager invited me in for an interview and was fascinated. They rolled out news of my appointment and it made a big splash in the local and international press.

My consultations last about an hour, though they can go longer, and I’ve accompanied guests on research for a day or two as well. We’ll cover online sources, which can be helpful in making sure they’re looking into the correct family, and I’ll direct them to the best records offices for their search.

When we do discover things, the reactions are amazing. I recall some years ago helping a guest identify where his ancestors came from, though we couldn’t access the information online. So we went to the National Library for further research and it turned out the location was 10 miles past the town he’d thought. He later wrote that he’d found the actual house where his ancestor lived – which was wonderful!

I love the interactions with guests looking for their roots. It’s a very special job because everyone’s family is special. I may not know everything, but with my “Irishness,” I’m well suited to point them in the right directions to find their history.

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