Heritage travel, or ancestry travel, has taken on new meaning in these lingering pandemic days, as we try to find connections while missing our loved ones. “It is super popular right now and right on trend,” says Edward Piegza, CEO and founder of Classic Journeys, which plans regular ancestry tours to countries like Italy and Greece. “With companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com making it much more accessible, it’s inspiring people to go and explore their roots more than before.”
I count myself among those curious roots-researchers. It has always been clear that my last name, Fitzsimmons, originated in Ireland and Scotland. Think of Fitzgerald, Fitzpatrick, and Fitz, and you may deduce what “Fitz” means—“son of.” My family and I have taken multiple trips to Ireland together, to the wild west coast near Galway, to the centuries-old Ashford Castle and the tiny town of Cong, to the villages of Kinsale and Cobh, the Titanic’s last stop to pick up passengers before setting sail across the Atlantic.
As St. Patrick’s Day approached, I started to miss my family more, scattered around the globe. It seemed like the right time to dive into it a bit more with a genealogist at Dromoland Castle, a favorite hotel in Ireland—and find a few other virtual options out there for people who want to explore their heritage, from Italy to Croatia to Africa.
Here’s how I did it for Ireland, and how you can find your roots, through kits and digital connection, until we can travel again.
Zoom to your Irish roots
Dromoland Castle’s in-house genealogist Lorna Moloney invited me to join her at the castle’s cocktail bar—virtually, of course. “This is where I normally meet the guests for genealogy sessions,” she said over Zoom, pointing to a photo of the bar with plush red velvet chairs, and towering windows overlooking the emerald green lawn. Despite wishing I was actually next to her by the flickering fireplace, I did feel transported for a moment. A week earlier, I had sent her the only two family names I knew, and their approximate dates of birth. She delved into historic church baptism and marriage records, and pinpointed where they came from, showing photos of Kilkenny and Ballylanders, in County Limerick.
I learned that one of my family names, Wise, is extremely rare in Ireland. For the first time, I saw the obituary from a local New York newspaper that Lorna had found of my great-great-grandmother, Delia Wise Lyons—I knew she had settled in Brooklyn but not that she had been a public schoolteacher at P.S. 131. Your session might dig up some skeletons: Lorna mentioned she had discovered triplet babies that had died in another family or affairs resulting in unknown children. It’s her life’s work, and Lorna doesn’t seem to be confused by any challenging family tree with multiple branches. She’s a gifted storyteller, weaving family history together against the backdrop of Ireland—and when it’s the story of you, it’s riveting.
Book a session through Dromoland Castle for 220 euros, which includes all the research materials she finds.
Find your African heritage
African Ancestry, founded in 2003, uses DNA test kits to find your lineage, often dating back more than 500 years to a specific African country and ethnic group. “This isn’t a novelty for Black people, it’s a necessity,” said spokesperson Nichole Taylor. “It reconciles the missing piece to our identity puzzle. It also dismantles perception about Africa as a continent, helping people learn about and connect with the richness of their heritage.”
It can be an overwhelming and emotional journey: The highly accurate reports are a way for people of African descent displaced by the slave trade to reliably find their African roots. In 2019, Ghana promoted a Year of Return, encouraging those in the African diaspora to return to the country 400 years after the first slaves landed in the United States, many with ties to or from Ghana. African Ancestry organizes immersive birthright journeys for families to return together, anywhere on the continent.
This year, it has also increased its engagement on digital platforms, with a virtual identity summit on what it means to be African, family and organizational reveals, community presentations, and celebrity interviews—Oprah Winfrey and John Legend have both used the service.
Register on AfricanAncestry.com to purchase kits and find out about upcoming online events.
For anywhere around the world—and future trip planning
Classic Journeys runs trips in 50+ countries across six continents and also specializes in heritage travel all over the world, including Italy, Spain, Vietnam, and Croatia. “The heritage experience doesn’t have to start when you arrive in the country of your ancestors,” says Piegza. “It can start this afternoon.”
The company sets up personalized Zoom calls and ancestral dives with its network of expert local guides. It can be after you take a DNA test or just a deeper look into a region where you know you have roots. It also works with professional genealogists who can schedule Zoom sessions with you, create family trees, and even write a family biography.
In addition, Classic Journeys will plan trips if you feel inspired by what you’ve learned. It has sent a family of 12, 3 generations deep, to Greece (3 of the men were named Achilles!); it included a deep-dive on the island of Lesbos, home of the family’s ancestors.
Drink to your Scottish roots
MyHeritage is one of the largest resources for family history and heritage, with more than 59 million users worldwide building family trees and searching archives and records. With Scotland Week coming up in April, and so many Americans claiming Scottish roots, now is a great time to order a DNA kit and see if you have Scottish heritage. Or if you know you do, hire local genealogist and historian Susie Douglas from Borders Ancestry for a Zoom session diving into where your clan is from and what tartan you might claim. For future trip planning, work with a professional genealogist to plan a customized genealogy tour of Scotland with Ancestry & Clan Research Tours. We recommend doing this work with a glass of Scotch whisky in hand.
>> Next: The Joys of a Virtual Whisky Tasting