How to trace your family roots through DNA travel

Note from 10Best: Someday, we’ll all be ready to pack our suitcases again and head out on our next adventures. In the meantime, here’s some inspiration for the future.

Looking at the panoramic picture hanging in my boutique hotel room at New York’s Irish-themed Merrion Row Hotel & Public House, I wasn’t sure if I was experiencing déjà vu or flashbacks. The image of a vast, verdant field – with a stone wall snaking through the foreground and clouds threatening overhead – made me feel nostalgic and connected to my Irish roots.

It’s not the first time I’ve been mentally or emotionally transported back to the motherland, but my stay at the Merrion Row reignited my desire to walk the land of my ancestors. I’d been to Ireland many times and know the names of the relatives that immigrated to the U.S., but I had yet to identify the town where they lived and, in some cases, died. I was longing to set my feet to that ground.

Discovering the family townland near Newmarket on Fergus — Photo courtesy of Wendy O’Dea

The DNA test that confirmed my Irish roots shed some light, confirming that the O’Dea branch of my family found its way to America from County Clare in western Ireland, but it didn’t indicate a specific city, town or village. As is the case with others searching for an ancestral home but armed with minimal information, I wasn’t sure what to do next.

Enter the genealogy experts. Kyle Betit, a professional genealogist at AncestryProGenealogists and manager of Ancestry’s travel program, recommended additional resources to check out before crossing the pond to the Emerald Isle.

In his role at Ancestry, Betit not only assists individuals on the hunt for information, but also helps organize genealogical trips and tours with various travel companies and cruise lines. “One of my missions is to prevent people from going on an ancestry-focused trip unprepared,” Betit said. “A little homework goes a long way.”

Betit directed me to a number of online resources, including, an Ireland-based website that features or links to databases of important documents such as baptism, marriage and death records.

He also noted that one of the most important pieces of the Irish puzzle is to identify the townland (a specific plot of land) where my ancestors lived and paid taxes. The latter is often found by researching Griffith’s Valuation, a county-by-county survey conducted between 1848 and 1864, that detailed all taxable agriculture and property in Ireland.

Luckily, once I found baptism and marriage records, along with tax records, I was able to identify the Catholic parish to which the family belonged, and the townland where they likely lived.

With this essential information, the pieces more or less fell into place. My daughter and I hopped on a Norwegian Air flight from Los Angeles and, upon arrival in Dublin, checked in at the posh Shelbourne Hotel. Not only is the Shelbourne centrally located, but it’s a short distance to many of the national institutions that house key genealogical documents and microfiche, including the National Archives and the National Library.

As a bonus, Shelbourne guests who don’t have time to do their own genealogical legwork can schedule a session with the hotel’s genealogy butler, Helen Kelly, who can help dig up the details on their behalf.

“I believe it’s important to take yourself to the ancestral location, walk the ground and let the landscape speak to you,” Kelly says. “That’s where your research should take you – to the ancestral place. It’s very special. Once you know the townland, there are townland maps that can be compared to modern day maps to help narrow down the specific land where a family may have resided.”

And that’s what we did. With a townland identified and a map in hand, we drove west to County Clare and anchored ourselves at Dromoland Castle Hotel. I’d stayed here before, unaware at that time that I was within walking distance to the fields where my ancestors once toiled.

Dromoland, which evolved over the centuries from a dank medieval fortress of the O’Brien clan, is now one of the few five-star castle hotels in western Ireland. It was here that we met up with local Clare genealogist Lorna Moloney.

Walking the grand hallways at Dromoland CastleWalking the grand hallways at Dromoland Castle — Photo courtesy of Wendy O’Dea

Moloney bounded into Dromoland with an energy that woke up the room. Her Irish lilt and excitement when speaking about all things genealogy made it clear she had found her passion. She encouraged us to continue our research via, noting that it provides insight as to which area a family may be from. “Every layer of knowledge gives you a little bit more,” Moloney says, “and it’s a lot of fun.”

After getting acquainted, we piled into Moloney’s tiny car and went in search of the land where Michael O’Dea, my two-times great grandfather, and his many siblings were born and raised before immigrating to America in the early 1850s. We made our way along narrow dirt roads near the townlands connected to my family roots – Muckanagh and Rathlaheen.

The author's ancestor, Michael O'Dea, immigrated with his siblings and later fought in the U.S. Civil WarThe author’s ancestor, Michael O’Dea, immigrated with his siblings and later fought in the U.S. Civil War — Photo courtesy of O’Dea Family Collection

We find much of the land near Muckanagh overgrown and unwieldy, and I wonder if this is how it’s always been or if these fields were once landscaped and meticulously tended to before the potato blight. There are two small lakes nearby, gleaming in the afternoon sun under a brilliant blue sky speckled with voluminous clouds.

After pulling off the road to admire the beauty, we discover Fenloe Cemetery, the final resting place of generations, and wander through the weeds growing around what’s left standing of a sixth century Pre-Reformation church. In the quiet solitude, we can feel the history and family lore rising from the earth.

Fenloe CemeteryFenloe Cemetery — Photo courtesy of Wendy O’Dea

While we haven’t yet been able to connect with direct descendants of the same O’Dea line, we found plenty of amiable Irish folk named O’Dea who were thrilled to welcome us as family and no doubt believed us to be connected – even if it was hundreds of years ago.

Not unlike previous trips to Ireland, we left eager to return and find cousins directly linked to Michael or his parents and siblings. Thanks to the many genealogists and local experts who shed light on the process, we now feel we have the tools we need to make it happen.

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