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. Linden Lane
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The Irish classifieds

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A lost-and-found for the American migration

Aili MacNally '05 (foreground) explores BC's new Information Wanted database on opening day in Burns Library. Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Aili MacNally '05 (foreground) explores BC's new Information Wanted database on opening day in Burns Library. Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Patrick McDermott, a Native of the County Kildare, and who was married in Kingston, near Dublin, is hereby informed that his wife and four children have arrived in Boston. They understand that he left Roxbury, in this State, about twelve months since, to obtain work as a stone mason; they are extremely anxious to hear from him. He is hereby requested to write or come for his poor family, to this city, as soon as possible.

boston pilot, October 1, 1831

For 90 years, from 1831 to 1921, the Boston Pilot newspaper published a weekly column entitled "Missing Friends." The column was a string of paid advertisements, and it became in effect a compendium of Irish immigrants being sought by relatives, friends, associates, and creditors (willing and unwilling). In brief paragraphs, Irish men and women living in the mother country and on this side of the Atlantic would describe a vanished spouse, an adult or juvenile child, a brother or sister, a neighbor or business acquaintance who'd left Ireland for America, and perhaps established a new life there, before all contact was lost.

The Pilot published more than 31,000 such notices, and they have been catalogued by Boston College researchers. Most are now available through a BC website called Information Wanted (words that began many of the advertisements). The database is open to scholars and the public, sponsored jointly by the Irish Studies Program and the Office of Marketing Communications.

"Ties of community and family could be broken, but the searches represent the tremendous effort that family and friends made to reconstitute in America what they had lost in leaving Ireland," says Ruth-Ann Harris, a part-time Irish Studies faculty member and the guiding force behind the "Missing Friends" project. Harris began the project while she was an assistant professor at Northeastern University, working in collaboration with several BC faculty, and she continued developing it when she started teaching at Boston College in 1993. With Northeastern professor Donald M. Jacobs and graduate student B. Emer O'Keeffe, she co-edited The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot, an eight-volume set published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society beginning in 1989, which includes a detailed analysis of data compiled from the column.

Harris knows something of leaving family and home for uncertain surroundings. Born in Liberia of English parents, she was sent to London as a small child at the outbreak of World War II, only to be caught up in the Blitz, the Nazi campaign that at one point rained bombs on London for 57 straight nights. The barely school-age Harris was relocated to Canada, where she stayed for five years until she could be reunited with her parents. "I suppose that's a major reason why I've always been interested in people and why they move," mused Harris during a recent interview. "When you collect immigration stories, having one of your own gives you a certain insight."


WHEN THE Irish set out in droves for the United States in the early 19th century, Harris says, an international postal system was only just emerging, making it difficult for émigrés to keep in touch with people they left behind. Botched plans and missed connections often resulted. In 1831, for instance, the stonemason Patrick McDermott's wife and four children sailed for Boston to reunite with him, only to find that he had left the area about a year before in search of work. The Alien (Immigration) Commissioner sought information on McDermott through an ad in the Pilot, the presumption being that if he did not turn up soon his indigent family would be returned to Ireland. The Commission's notice launched the "Missing Friends" column. And the column transformed the newspaper from a slow-selling communicator of Catholic doctrine to a must-read, complete with coverage of Irish politics and an audience from Boston to Ireland to Australia.

Entries in "Missing Friends" were usually spare and formulaic; the three dollars it cost to place an ad represented a sizeable chunk of most immigrants' weekly income. Often the notices gave little more than the missing person's name, birthplace, known destination, and some distinguishing characteristic, such as occupation or physical appearance. Yet in some advertisements the ache of separation came across.

John Lillis in February 1855 sought his 12-year-old daughter, Catherine: She had sailed from Liverpool aboard the John Bright; the ship had reached New York City in January; "uneasy parents await news." Catherine Connell Bennis sought her husband, William, in October 1859, or at least word of him: "Supp. enlisted" in the Army in New Orleans—"dead or alive?"

Patrick Fitzpatrick, a self-described "much afflicted husband," sought the whereabouts of his wife, Mary, in 1849: "She left her lawful husband and came to America," and was believed to be living in Worcester with "one Bryan Laihy, blacksmith. . . . She is about five feet high, thin favored, black hair . . . light delicate complexion, with a small mole on the forehead. There are three spots of indelible ink in the form of a triangle upon one of her hands. She walks with a prompt and active gait." The actual texts of the ads are not yet available online; the notices appear as summaries. BC's O'Neill and Burns libraries house most back issues of the Pilot. The New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston also possesses an extensive collection.

Harris says she has come to appreciate the literary as well as the historical and demographic qualities of the Pilot's advertisements. "These are, for the most part, unending stories," she says. The Pilot "claimed, 'More than three-fourths of those advertised for are found,' and the fact that the column ran for 90 years suggests it was successful. Some people did submit ads saying they had located the person they were looking for. But we don't always know if the parents found their young child, or if she was safe and healthy, or whether couples that were reunited lived happily ever after."

Even so, the information in "Missing Friends" has proven immensely valuable to historians. Harris has focused her studies on labor and immigration trends. "Many immigration records from that era were not especially precise," she says. "A passenger might be identified as being from Ireland, but nothing more specific; or if the ship stopped in or originated from England, the passenger might even be identified as English."

According to Harris, the information in the Pilot notices is useful as well to amateur genealogists seeking information on family members or hoping "to learn more about the 19th-century world of their ancestors."

The Information Wanted website was launched on March 17, St. Patrick's Day, with a ceremony in the John J. Burns Library. The site can be found at infowanted.bc.edu.

Sean Smith


Sean Smith is editor of the Boston College Chronicle.

 

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