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An ad posted in the ‘‘Missing Friends’’ column in The Boston Pilot for Irish immigrant Patrick McDermott on Oct. 1, 1831. Boston College will put many of the ads online.
An ad posted in the ‘‘Missing Friends’’ column in The Boston Pilot for Irish immigrant Patrick McDermott on Oct. 1, 1831. Boston College will put many of the ads online.

The Irish immigrant past gets tie to today

Susan Reynolds was looking for her daughters; Mary had disappeared while searching for Rose in East Boston.

Margaret Finneron Dolan was looking for her husband, John, who had last been seen in Canada.

Patrick Flynn's roommates were looking for him because he took off with their money from the room they shared in Salem, N.H.

Professor Ruth-Ann M. Harris found them all, at least all their stories, in the ''Missing Friends" column that ran in The Boston Pilot, the Roman Catholic newspaper in the city, from 1831 to 1921. Today, on St. Patrick's Day, Boston College is placing online the first database that will allow anybody, from scholars doing research to those interested in their ancestors, to track Irish immigrants who lost contact with their families in a 90-year stretch spanning two centuries.

The website -- ''Information Wanted," after the title under which most of the ads ran -- can be found at infowanted.bc.edu.

The database is an electronic version of an eight-volume set called ''The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot," which Harris researched and edited for the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

She said the information provides a window on the immigrant experience, especially the families' determination to remain intact despite logistical difficulties that seem unimaginable today.

After the city's emigrant commissioner placed an ad in The Boston Pilot on Oct. 1, 1831, looking for a Patrick McDermott to claim his wife and four children after they had arrived from Ireland, the ''Missing Friends" column became a must read for Irish expatriates, not just in the United States, but in England and Australia, common landing spots for those fleeing poverty and, by the 1840s, a potato blight that devastated the island.

''This put the Pilot on the map," Harris said. ''Up until that time, it was a newspaper that reflected the French intellectual thought that was prevalent in the Catholic church in Boston in the early 19th century."

''Missing Friends" gave the paper a more populist appeal, and the sparse words told poignant stories between the lines. In the 1840s, the ads cost about $3, extraordinary when immigrant women were making $4 a week and immigrant tradesmen about $6, Harris said.

''People pooled resources to take out an ad," she said.

Harris said there are no records to determine how often the ads led to reunions. But ''they had to be fairly successful, or people would not have kept taking the ads out, especially over such a long period of time," she said.

Some of the most heartbreaking ads, she said, were from parents who, after settling in Boston and other places along the Eastern seaboard, had sent for their children in Ireland, only to lose contact after the children arrived in Canada or other ports. For much of the 19th century, Harris said, captains sailing to Boston paid a $10 duty per head that did not apply to other ports, so many of the Irish who settled in Boston came via other entry spots. Those logistics created massive confusion and separated families.

Among the most common ads were those placed by wives looking for husbands who had boarded ships, promising to find work and send money home, only to disappear in the New World. Occasionally, however, husbands were seeking women who did what the Irish call a runner on them. In 1846, when Mary Burns Fitzpatrick fled Tipperary for America with her lover, Bryan Laihy, a blacksmith, her jilted husband, Patrick, placed an ad offering a $50 reward to find her. Patrick Fitzpatrick suggested that she might have gone to Worcester, where she had a brother and two sisters, and that her leaving him was a scandal worthy of shunning.

''The above reward will be paid for detection and her apprehension," Patrick Fitzpatrick wrote. ''The much afflicted husband would feel obliged to the public by not employing her."

But the majority of ads were placed by people heartbroken over losing touch with a loved one who had left Ireland for life in a new land and simply disappeared. The ''Missing Friends" column stopped in 1921, as the wave of Irish immigration slowed and international postal service improved.

For Harris, ''this is my thank you to BC." As professor of Irish history since 1993, she has been allowed to pursue the sort of genealogical research that she says is not valued at other academic institutions. ''It's always been my dream to get this sort of information into the hands of the public," Harris said.

The Rev. William P. Leahy, the president of Boston College, said the institution ''honors its own heritage" by backing the research and by making it available to a wider audience. The school was founded in 1863 by Irish immigrants, whose arrival in the post-famine years transformed Boston from an overwhelmingly Protestant city to a heavily Catholic one in a single generation.

Jack Dunn, a BC spokesman, said the university's information and technology department took precautions for launching the website on St. Patrick's Day, in a place like Boston, knowing it would provoke an extraordinary number of hits.

The site goes online at 1 p.m.

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