March 17, 2005 • Volume 13 Number13

Part-time Irish Studies faculty member Ruth-Ann Harris says The Boston Pilot's "Missing Friends" column reflects "the tremendous effort that family and friends made to reconstitute in America what they had lost in leaving Ireland."

The Stories of 'Missing Friends'

BC Web site based on newspaper column adds to resources on history of Irish immigration

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor
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.

So many stories, so few endings.

From 1831 to 1921, The Boston Pilot offered a weekly compendium of Irish immigrants being sought by relatives, friends or acquaintances. The "Missing Friends" column contained paragraph after paragraph describing a spouse, an adult or juvenile child, a family member, a former neighbor, and others incommunicado since their departure for, or arrival in, North America.

The more than 31,000 entries that ran during the 90 years "Missing Friends" have been catalogued by Boston College researchers and are now being made available through a BC Web site, Information Wanted, at Through a joint venture between the Irish Studies Program and the Office of Marketing Communications, the advertisements have been turned into a searchable database, and serve as a resource for serious scholars and others interested in Irish immigration.

"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," said Ruth-Ann Harris, a part-time Irish Studies faculty member and the guiding force behind the "Missing Friends" project.

The on-line venture represents a new embarkation for Harris, who began the project while at Northeastern University in collaboration with several BC faculty, and continued when she started teaching at BC in 1993. She also co-editedThe Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot, an eight-volume set that includes a detailed analysis of data compiled from "Missing Friends."

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 Nazis' bombing campaign of Great Britain. The barely school-aged Harris was then relocated to Canada, where she stayed for five years until she was 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 began to set out in great droves for the US in the early 19th century, Harris says, an international postal system was only just emerging, making it difficult for those who had immigrated to keep in touch with those they had left behind. The result was that many of those in Ireland had no idea where their relatives and friends might be. Many new Irish Americans simply became "lost" to those who cared about them, she says.

In October 1831, an advertisement appeared in The Boston Pilot seeking a Patrick McDermott, whose wife and family, newly arrived from Ireland, would be returned by the Emigrant Commissioner if he was not located. This was the first ad in the "Missing Friends" column. Almost immediately the ads became popular, were widely used, and increased the paper's circulation nationally and abroad, including Ireland and Australia.

Entries for "Missing Friends" were usually concise and formulaic, often giving little more than the missing person's name, birthplace, known destination and some distinguishing characteristic, such as occupation or physical appearance. [The actual texts of the ads are not yet available via the on-line database.]

Yet some advertisements reflect, or hint at, the more personal and emotional aspects of this separation: parents trying to find the whereabouts of their 12-year-old daughter who had traveled alone to New York City; a grown son thought to have died of cholera after arriving in the US "but subsequentey (sic) still lives"; a wife's precise descriptions of her missing husband, from his height (5-foot-7) to his "black-whiskered" facial appearance to his "drab sack coat" and "blue striped shirt."

A "Missing Friends" column from 1858

Harris has come to appreciate the literary as well as the historical and demographic qualities of these advertisements.

"These are, for the most part, unending stories," said Harris. "In its introduction to the column, theBoston Pilot claimed that 'more than three-fourths of those advertised for are found,' and the fact the column ran for 90 years suggests it was successful. Some people in fact 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.

"These notices serve as a kind of snapshot of people's lives - we have some idea about who they were, where they were from, but we can't necessarily be sure what happened to them."

Despite such limitations, the information in "Missing Friends" has proven to be immensely valuable to historians such as Harris, who studies labor and economic trends.

"Many immigration records from that era were not especially precise," she explained. "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. Data like that in 'Missing Friends' - which gives names, birthplaces, destinations and the like - help form a more complete picture of Irish immigration patterns.

"The information in the ads is still important in today's world; valuable for scholars as well as family historians who wish to learn more about the nineteenth century world of their ancestors."

top of page