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The idyllic Rock of Cashel is the most visited Heritage site in the country


Genealogy has become the yoga of the 21st century according to some experts, but it’s also a wonderful way to see Ireland and discover where your ancestors came from.

WORDS Diana Plater

e’re having high tea at the historic five star Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin and its ‘genealogy butler’ Helen Kelly is talking about the ‘goosebump trail’.

That’s when you follow the footsteps of your ancestors and discover the very ground they walked on, visit the communities where they grew up, the paddocks they farmed, and see their villages and towns.

Even if you never meet a distant or a close relative in the ‘home’ country, your skin will go tingly when you unravel the clues, she tells us as we sip our tea and munch on sandwiches and cakes.

But first if you want to discover your family history, you need to start at home.

Over the past few years, I have become extremely interested in where my ancestors came from and now wish I had asked my parents, aunts and uncles so many more questions.

Brad Argent, Content Director of the genealogy website suggests that before kids start to go online to look for information, they quiz their family. And that’s not just grandma or grandpa.

“If you can, talk to a great aunt or uncle because their view on the history of the family can be a bit different,” Argent says, and this might include those skeletons in the closet.

For example, my mother’s cousin, the family guardian in some ways, presented me with a complete family tree and old photos when I showed interest.

Between a quarter and a third of Australians have Irish heritage, with the large influx coming mainly as a result of the potato famine in the 1840s. (At Wicklow Jail we were told about a very young girl and her friends who were imprisoned then transported because of sharing stolen apples.)

“The Irish call it the ‘great starvation’ because they believe the English had the means to end it,” Argent says. “But in Australia, in a very strange way, we benefited from the great Irish emigration.”

Realising how important the growing interest in genealogy is to tourism, the Irish government made 2013 the Year of the Gathering, inviting the Irish ‘diaspora’ to come home and attend hundreds of festivals and events as well as scores of clan gatherings, or huge family reunions.

For my latest trip there with my cousin, Jan, in the Year of the Gathering, I was interested in finding out more about the family background of my father’s grandmother, a formidable woman whose maiden name was Mary Stuart Foran.


Lead image: The idyllic Rock of Cashel is the most visited Heritage site in the country
Above top: Park Hotel Kenmare waterview
Above bottom: Kilkenny Castle

From top:
Ashford Castle Hotel at night
The Kildare Hotel

We had sent Kelly a pile of information about our ‘immigrant ancestor’ – our great-great-grandfather, Nicholas Foran (Mary’s father), who was born in 1805 in the townland (a cluster of green fields or the rural equivalent of a street) of Leighlin (pronounced Lachland) in County Carlow and came here in the 1840s.

“Did you know you have both Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland (Protestant)ancestors?” Kelly asks us, including another Nicholas Foran, the mid-19th-century Catholic Bishop of Waterford.

We wonder about the scandal in a time of great political and religious turmoil of a Catholic marrying somebody from a noble Protestant family. As Kelly says, Cupid doesn’t care about religious differences.

Her consultation is aimed at empowering you to do your own research, as she explains Irish genealogical sources fall into four main categories: civil or government records of birth, death and marriage; church records of baptism and marriage; census returns and land/property records. While many records were destroyed in a series of fires, visiting local parishes can upturn others.

She says you need to know not just the county your ancestors lived in but the specific townland. The land divisions are: county; baroney; parish (Roman Catholic or civil/Church of Ireland); townland. The best index to townlands is the Irish Times website.

Over the following week we visit churches, houses and villages associated with our families around Carlow, Kilkenny, Waterford and Wicklow, all in Ireland’s south-east, taking time to visit fascinating ancient sites and goggle at stunning landscapes, and listen to great music.

Kelly also believes the older generations and younger ones can work together on researching their family history, with children helping their older relatives on the computer. has pulled together more than 35 million historical records on Ireland alone. Kelly says children should also access the Irish national repositories, which can be combined with sightseeing.

“When you’re in Dublin you need to go down to the national library and see this beautiful building,” she says.

On a rare sunny afternoon, we stand at the graves at the Foran family church, the Sacred Heart, overshadowed by the ruins of Dunhill Castle near Waterford, with our fourth or fifth cousin, Anne. And Kelly’s words ring in my ears.

“Allow the landscape to speak to you and if you don’t meet a living relative you’ll at least find people of that community who speak the same way the ancestor did. I believe we’re just as much products of our community as we are of our family.”

The writer was a guest of Tourism Ireland, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa.

Fly: Singapore Airlines flies to Frankfurt via Singapore Lufthansa flies from Frankfurt to Dublin

Stay: For guests staying at The Shelbourne Dublin, A Renaissance Hotel, Helen Kelly offers professional advice and assistance for a fee
• The Pembroke Hotel

Info: Fáilte Ireland has published a booklet, ‘Tracing Your Ancestors in Ireland’


Our selection of stand-out castle hotels and manor houses for discerning families.

Ashford Castle Hotel Country Mayo

Perched by Lough Corrib, this castlr dates from the 13th century so you know it has plenty of experience with families. The estate provides everything from horseback riding and bike hire to lake fishing and picnics, with junior amenities, spa treatments and menus to put its littlest lords and ladies right at ease.

Dromoland Castle Hotel & Country Estate, Country Clare

The family will feel like royalty amid the 16th century splendour of Dromoland Castle Hotel, with plenty of opportunity for kid-friendly discovery. Young guests will find mini bathrobes and children's menus are perfect additions to their regal stay, as well as a seasonal kids' club for little ones aged four to 12.

The Kildare Hotel At The K Club, Country Kildare

As well as the K Club kids' club for children from three to 12, there are kids' bike tours of the resort, golf clinics, swimming lessons, fly-fishing lessons, horse riding, archery and family picnics. All family rooms and garden apartments also come with kids' movies, colouring packs and mini bathrobes.

Park Hotel Kenmare, Country Kerry

While mum and dad deligth in the SAMAS spa and Kenmare Golf Club, the kids will be having a ball with treasure hunts, tennis, children's times at the pool and croquet lessons. The hotel even serves a special children's dinner at 6pm and offers over 100 kid-friendly movies in the 12-seat Reel Room Cinema.

Ballyfin Demesne, Country Laois

Children of all ages are welcome at Ballyfin when the 15-room mansion is reserved for exclusive use, while children nine and over are welcome for individual reservations as well. Little ones are well looked afetyr with mini bathrobes and slippers, a Ballyfin Bear, croquet, storytelling and period costumes at dinner.

Mount Juliet Hotel, Country Kilkenny

Junior guests will feel right at home at Mount Juliet's Little Rascals Kids' Club, full of adventure with cinema nights, treasure hunts, orienteering, picnics and plenty of games. This Georgian manor house indulges guests with a junior gold programme, an equestrian centre and archery for children aged six and up.

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