Hotel companies love to brag about providing local experiences for their guests, but few actually live up to their billing. One of Ireland's top hotels created a job to literally help visitors find their place in the destination's history: a genealogy butler.
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Hotels have bath butlers, beachside butlers and beagle butlers. But in Dublin, one storied inn with deep Irish roots has a genealogy butler in place to help guests find their own connections to the country.
It all started with Helen Kelly, a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists who has served as a consultant at places like Ireland’s Genealogical Office, the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives of Ireland. She had read that The Shelbourne Hotel, the grande dame of the Dublin hospitality scene, was reopening in 2006. “At the time,” said Kelly, “they were advertising for staff. Given that the Shelbourne is a very historic hotel (it was built in 1824), I asked if they be interested in my services.” At first, the human resources team was a bit hesitant. But when Kelly presented the concept of genealogy butler to the general manager, he was so interested that he created the position just for Kelly and patented the title.
“It’s detective work that I do,” said Kelly. Perhaps it’s only coincidental, then, that the veteran genealogist bears a resemblance to Miss Marple, the venerable sleuth of Agatha Christie mysteries. Kelly has the demeanor of a sweet Irish grandmother, although she is mum about her age. When asked about it, she demurs and quotes Oliver Goldsmith as saying “women and music should never be dated.” She added: “We are all ageless.”
The search for one’s roots is also a timeless affair. “Everybody’s family history is very special to them,” said Kelly. “So my job is to engage with guests who would like to pursue Irish family history.”
Prior to arrival, guests fill out an assessment form with basic information, including the name of the émigré relative and the port of immigration. Kelly looks over the form and spends some time exploring online sources and Irish records. After that, she develops a personalized assessment report of ancestral information, along with a research program enabling guests to commence their search.
“It’s an empowerment session,” said Kelly, “where I introduce guests to the sources that best suit their needs.´ My favorite part is when we can discover the actual location where their ancestor was born.”
Even though the service is just an hour-long consultation, Kelly’s knowledge of Irish history sources is essential. “I introduce them to offices that will help them further their research. Irish family history research can be challenging. Birth records only started in 1864. Prior to that, you are largely dependent on church registers of baptism (which, in the Catholic church, only date back to the early to mid-1800s). As a result, very rarely can you trace ancestors back to the 1600s.”
Even so, Kelly notes that the journey isn’t about “how far back, but it’s about where their Irish-born ancestors were born and going there. I always advise guests to go back and walk gently in the area of their ancestors, allowing the landscape—a magic trail — to speak to them.” After all, “when we emigrate, we don’t shed our heritage,” said Kelly. “We all need to know who we are.”
As for the Shelbourne, having a genealogy butler on board is the perfect way to celebrate the past while meeting today’s demand for creating experiences. ”The butler service fits right in with the trend of travel becoming experiential,” said JP Kavanagh, the hotel’s general manager. “More and more people are coming to Ireland to explore their culture, history, and where their forefathers come from. Helen facilitates guests’ explorations of their past, which is probably one of the most moving experiences a person can have.”
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Photo credit: The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin employs a genealogy butler. Tom Flemming / Flickr