June 2005

 

An Irishwoman's Diary

Waiting (and waiting) at Boston's Logan Airport recently, I noticed how few travellers arriving through the pneumatically whooshing doors looked lost or even disoriented. Most seemed to hit the ground running, into a loving embrace or at least a manly handshake, writes Anna Mundow.

Even most of the solo un-met - muttering into cellphones, weaving through the obstacle course of group huggers - were talking non-stop to those they had left behind or those they were about to meet. Reporting back, reporting forward.

What an altered planet from the one spinning in 1831 when the following notice appeared in The Pilot, a Boston weekly newspaper, seeking "Patrick McDermott whose wife and family, newly arrived from Ireland will be returned by the Emigrant Commissioner if he is not located. They understand that he left Roxbury, in this state, about 12 months since, to obtain work as a stone mason."

This was the first advertisement to be published in "Missing Friends", a column which ran in The Pilot from 1831 to 1921 and which, its editors claimed, located over three-quarters of the emigrants sought by anxious relatives.

Now the Irish Studies Programme at Boston College has made this collection of 31,711 records available as a searchable on-line database. "Information Wanted: A Database of Advertisements for Irish Immigrants Published in the Boston Pilot" provides a text record for each advertisement and simple and advanced search mechanisms, as well as historical background on Irish immigration and a directory of other print and on-line resources to help users who are curious about lost ancestors (http://infowanted.bc.edu/). Descendants may discover who was looking for vanished Uncle Ted in 1850, while historians and students may glimpse the individual stories behind successive waves of 19th- and early 20th-century emigration.

Between 1821 and 1830, Irish immigrants arrived in North America at a rate of 5,000 per year. During the 1840s, that number swelled to over 78,000 and in the 1850s to over 90,000 per year. At the peak of this human traffic an international postal system barely existed. People disappeared, accidentally or intentionally. Children travelling alone went astray. For a dollar fee The Pilot, with a weekly nationwide circulation approaching 50,000, would try to find them.

Founded in 1829 by Benedict Fenwick, a Jesuit priest and later bishop of Boston, The Pilot was originally called The Jesuit or Catholic Sentinel and was published chiefly as a resource for immigrants of all nationalities. In 1838, however, under the editorship of Patrick Donahue, the weekly newspaper became particularly associated with the Repeal Movement (whose official periodical in Dublin was also called The Pilot) and increasingly addressed itself to both the established and the newly arrived Irish immigrant.

A political, religious, social and employment resource, The Pilot was critical in reinforcing - perhaps even forming - a sense of Irish identity in America by encouraging those who had left Ireland to reconstruct the life they had left behind.

The "Missing Friends" column is a perfect example. A typical advertisement revealed the county and parish of birth; the individual's occupation; when he/she left Ireland; and the believed port of arrival in North America along with other relevant personal information. In January 1852, for example, it sought "Hugh or Michael McDonald, son of Hugh McDonald Esq, parish Kilcummin, near Keeper Hill (Co Tipperary), a gentleman who acted a distinguished part in the movement of '98 after which he emigrated to this country. . .His son, Hugh, was in Perry Township, Brown County, Ohio, 10 years ago. Confer a favour by writing to: Cornelius O'Brien, St John, N.B. who will inform their friends in Ireland."

Other notices are poignantly brief: "Owen Harte, who last heard from was lying sick in St Louis, Missouri"; a wife describes her missing husband's "black-whiskered facial appearance, drab sack coat and blue striped shirt". Parents try to find their 12-year-old daughter who landed alone in New York City.

When Eileen Kamerick searched for her Irish ancestors on the "Information Wanted" website she was astonished to find verification of a dramatic family story she had often heard about her great-grandmother. Julia Dunn emigrated from Kerry in the early 1860s when she was six years old. Her parents and siblings had already left Ireland to settle in Virginia, having arranged for Julia and an older cousin to travel to New York city, where a friend was paid to meet them and escort them south. The friend never materialised. Looked after by other passengers, the girls found work as housemaids. Several years later, Julia's employer located her father and the Dunns were reunited, though the child no longer recognised any of her relatives. In "Information Wanted," Eileen Kamerick found the advertisement placed by Edmund Dunn who was looking for his daughter, the same advertisement that probably caught the eye of Julia's employer.

For Ruth-Ann Harris, who co-edited the eight-volume collection of Pilot advertisements on which "Information Wanted" is based, the project was far more than an academic exercise. Born in Liberia of British parents, Ms Harris was a child in London during the Blitz and was evacuated to Canada, where she remained for five years before finally being reunited with her parents. Younger Americans, on the other hand, accustomed to the images rather than the reality of war, will be reminded of perhaps the most famous 21st-century equivalent of "Missing Friends": the notices that appeared overnight across Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. The frantic looking for the lost. An altered planet indeed.