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Obituary: Irish Studies Scholar Ruth-Ann Harris

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (September 2012)—Ruth-Ann Harris, a faculty member in the Irish Studies Program for nearly two decades whose research was the basis for the nation’s first online database for tracking “lost” Irish immigrants, died on Sept. 5. at age 76.

Ruth-Ann Harris
Ruth-Ann Harris

A resident of Jamaica Plain, Mass., Dr. Harris served as researcher and editor for an eight-volume set of books, The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in The Boston Pilot, a compilation of advertisements from 1831-1921 in The Boston Pilot “Missing Friends” column placed by Irish seeking others who were “lost” following emigration.

In 2005, Boston College launched “Information Wanted: A Database of Advertisements for Irish Immigrants Published in The Boston Pilot,” a website that drew on Dr. Harris’ work. More than 41,000 records are now available as a searchable on-line database via the site.

“The advertisements contain the ordinary but revealing details about the missing person’s life: the county and parish of their birth, when they left Ireland, the believed port of arrival in North America, their occupation, and a range of other personal information,” according to the introduction on the “Information Wanted” site. “The people who placed ads were often anxious family members in Ireland, or the wives, siblings, or parents of men who followed construction jobs on railroads or canals.”

"These 'Missing Friends' advertisements provide a window on Irish immigration and the difficulties that surrounded it," said Dr. Harris in an interview at the time of the website’s launch. "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. The column was critically important in this process of rebuilding lost ties."

Since immigration records from that era were not precise, she explained, data from “Missing Friends” supplied names, birthplaces, destinations and other details that 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,” she said.

Dr. Harris had a personal, as well as an academic, interest when it came to the subject of leaving family and home. 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 Nazis' bombing campaign of Great Britain. Barely school-aged, she 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," Dr. Harris said in the interview. "When you collect immigration stories, having one of your own gives you a certain insight."

A researcher in Irish social and economic history as well as immigration, Dr. Harris, who earned her doctorate from Tufts University, was founder and facilitator of the Boston Irish Colloquium, which began in 1993. In 1994-95 she was the senior research scholar at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Among her academic and professional affiliations, she worked with the Fulbright program as a regular liaison between the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, for the US Information Agency, Irish Scholarship Board, Cultural Affairs Committee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ireland, and as a cultural affairs officer on Fulbright Exchange Programs for the U.S. Embassy.

Dr. Harris is survived by her husband, John, her children, Catherine, Dorothy and Rees, and eight grandchildren.

A celebration of Dr. Harris’ life is planned for a later date at Boston College.

—Office of News & Public Affairs