I Went to Ireland to Trace My Ancestry With a Genealogy Expert — Here's How You Can Too
A new travel package from Aer Lingus makes it easier than ever to "discover your Irish roots."
What It Is: Tracing my Irish ancestry on a “DNA tourism” vacation.
Discovering your family history through DNA testing services like 23 and Me and Ancestry DNA has become increasingly popular, but it only gives you so much information. When I wanted to take my research a step further, I came across a trip that’s designed to bring you face to face with your personal heritage. Ireland’s Aer Lingus airline has created a genealogy-based travel experience called “Discover Your Roots” that allows visitors to trace their roots right down to the exact region and city their Irish ancestors came from.
“The package was created in response to the growing DNA tourism trend in the U.S., where Americans are increasingly booking trips to explore the countries where their families came from,” says Bill Byrne, Aer Lingus Director of Global Sales and VP of North America. “With millions of Americans identifying as Irish, we wanted to make it easy for them to access their homeland and since we fly from fourteen North American gateways direct to Ireland, it just made sense.”
So how does it work? Prices start at $999 for a six-day experience. The package includes roundtrip economy airfare to Dublin, two nights in a Dublin hotel, a 90-minute private consultation with a genealogy expert at the Irish Family History Centre, admission to EPIC the Irish Emigration Museum and the Irish Family History Centre, a four-night car rental and four nights in your choice of B&Bs throughout Ireland.
On a recent trip to Ireland, I put the package to the test by meeting with a genealogist expert at the EPIC Museum to discover exactly where my ancestors came from.
Who Tried It: Colleen Kratofil, Style Editor at People
Level of Difficulty: 7, depending on how far you’ve assembled your family tree in advance. It took me some time to call relatives to collect as much information as possible to compile my family tree into one concise document.
What Went Down: As my first name may suggest, I am, in fact, pretty Irish. Each of my great-grandparents on my mother’s side came to America from Ireland in the 1920s, and my family is very connected to our Irish roots and the Irish dance community. (You can see my commitment to celebrating St. Patricks’ Day here.) So already knowing a good bit about my heritage, I wanted to see how much more I could discover about my family tree.
Upon booking, I received a list of items to bring with me to the consultation with the genealogy expert. It suggested writing down the name, birth date, place of birth, religion and any known parents/siblings of each Irish ancestor I was researching. It also asked to provide any death, marriage or church records, boat passenger lists, naturalization records or WWI or WWII draft cards.
After many, many phone calls with my mother, grandmother, aunts and great-uncle, I assembled a family tree that went back four, five and in one instance six generations, by compiling names, birth dates, marriages and parents’ and siblings’ names within my lineage.
Now, I had probably seen too many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are on TLC, because at times my mind ran a little too wild thinking about how far we would get in our consultation. Would the expert discover that I descended from royalty centuries ago? Was there a scandalous story hidden somewhere in my past that I’ve never heard of? In reality, I had to remind myself that this was just a 90-minute consultation and the expert didn’t spend hours and hours researching my tree ahead of time. What really happened was that my genealogy expert at the Irish Family History Centre, Patrick Roycroft, looked at my notes and my makeshift tree just minutes before we sat down together.
“Since people are in different phases of discovery of their family roots, the genealogist acts as a guide of where to look along with tips and tools to get through barriers,” explains Martha Rizea, Aer Lingus’ Consumer Sales & Marketing Executive. “Some people are just getting started and only have a little information and others have records, but this session will act as a guide.”
During the meeting, the first thing Roycroft needed to do was make sure the tree I had assembled from my family was in fact, historically correct, because I didn’t have any birth or marriage records from my ancestors in Ireland. A few birth dates within my tree were off by a year, but Roycroft explained that’s quite common. “You have to remember people from this period in the late 1800s and farther back, many of them genuinely did not know when they were born, they’re making a wild guess.”
We sat together in front of a computer and retraced the names on my family tree by finding birth, marriage or baptism records of each member of my family to ensure the names, spellings, birth places and birth dates I acquired were correct — but I quickly learned tracing ancestry in Ireland is not an easy task.
“Irish geography is more difficult than you might think. Not just because of some of the weird names and spellings, and half the stuff might be in Irish,” Roycroft started. “It’s tricky because any individual place or region in Ireland can have maybe eight or nine names associated with it.”
Another issue? Civil registration in Ireland, which is a legal requirement to register a birth, marriage and death with the state (as opposed to having it in a parish record) started for Catholics in Ireland in 1864. Before that, there’s nothing.
As we went, Roycroft sent me copies of all the records we found. We used the full 90 minutes and only covered two relatives, out of four, in my family. “We could literally be working on this for the next six hours without any problem,” Roycroft said.
Once the consultation was finished, the package is designed so one can continue researching their family for another day in Dublin, then schedule where they would like to reserve B&Bs to visit some of the places they’ve just learned about.
“The B&B’s are an open voucher system, so based on any newly discovered information, guests will set out to that area to see where their roots come from,” Rizea says. “It’s a completely flexible program of discovery, cultural immersion, Irish hospitality and a vacation all in one.”
Because I already knew each of my great-grandparents hailed from County Mayo (and I’m an over-planner) I knew I’d stay there during my journey. (I chose the Hazelbrook B&B in Westport, which I’d highly recommend.)
The Results: Was it less glamorous than discovering some hidden family secret? Sure. But it was still absolutely fascinating.
We got one layer deeper into my maternal grandmother’s side and my maternal grandfather’s side, and confirmed the birth dates and birth places of family members along both sides of my family.
The whole purpose of the consultation is to truly trace one’s roots — and that’s exactly what Roycroft did. I had known one half of one side of my family came from the town of Balina, County Mayo. But by looking at both county and church records of my relatives, we actually narrowed down the exact, very specific, area within Balina where they lived, even tracing a move the family had made between the border of County Mayo and County Sligo.
Roycroft also explained that I wouldn’t be able to get one more generation back, because of the limitations of Irish records. “The general brick wall for Irish genealogy for Catholics is about 1800. That’s where things really do peter out quite quickly. If you’re very lucky, you can maybe get two generations back. I would probably eat my pen if you actually got three generations back. I don’t think that’s going to be possible.”
In the end, we traced the exact areas where two sides of my family came from (Tourmakeady and Kiltimagh) and I was even able to visit cousins that still live in the towns (and in one case, the same property) that my great-grandparents came from (pictured above).
Going back to the exact cities from which my relatives departed Ireland was eye opening. It really made me think about the experience my great-grandparents had leaving their hometowns and the lives they created so far away from home.
Overall, the “Discover Your Roots” package is an amazing experience for those serious about learning about their ancestry and it’s an easy one-stop shop in the vacation-planning process. With airfare, a rental car, and B&B stays booked in one session, it makes planning a breeze and leaves more time to be spent truly digging into your heritage.
What to Know Before a Genealogy Consultation
To prepare for your own experience tracing your roots, I asked Roycroft what people should bring, and the expectations they should have, before meeting with an genealogist. Here are his expert tips:
1. Talk to your elders.
“Get the information from them, get it in a structured format, present that to the genealogists and say, ‘This is what I know from family history. These are the names and the dates and the places.’ And then it’s up to the genealogist to deal with that.”
2. List the names of all known relatives/siblings of your ancestor.
“Listing all the names of brothers and sisters of those you’re researching is brilliant because some of those are more easily findable. Someone may have an unusual name, which is easier to search. What happens quite often is, in the direct line that somebody wants to research, there’s a problem with it for whatever reason, but you can go around it by researching a brother or sister and carry on.”
3. Be mindful of the resources available in Irish records.
“The late and mid-19th century is when there’s a rich trove of records. Early 19th century, not so much. If you’re Roman Catholic before 1864, the parish registers are the things you need to have in order to establish who was born and who married who. You’re absolutely dependent upon specifically which parish in which county your ancestor came from. 1800 is the barrier. The whole west of Ireland is all like that. The east sometimes maybe it’s a bit better.”
4. English relatives may help the search.
“If you were fortunate enough to have English ancestors, their whole preservation is completely different. If one had farming ancestors in England, you can probably get back to the 1700s, even 1600s sometimes from their records. But in Ireland you would have trouble getting past 1800.”
During our interview, Roycroft used an example about President John F. Kennedy to hit the point home. “Hundreds of top genealogists in the world researched his ancestors and they can’t get back more than his great-great grandfather because the records don’t exist. It doesn’t matter if you’re a president.”
5. Guinness may be the secret.
During a visit to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, I discovered that a rich trove of history does exist before the 1800s for all employees who ever worked at Guinness — which began in 1759 — thanks to the Guinness Archive collect. Family members of former Guinness employees can access work files, medical records, artifacts and more through the Guinness Storehouse Archives, which contains over 20,000 individual personnel files, available by appointment only.