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Database of Pilot ads will help Irish-Americans trace roots

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CHESTNUT HILL — Students, faculty and guests gathered at Boston College’s Burns Library on St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate an event that will help Irish-Americans seeking to explore their roots — the launch of an online database containing information from the “Missing Friends” section of The Pilot dating back nearly 175 years.

“Missing Friends,” ran from October 1831 through October 1921. Irish immigrants who made the often times arduous journey to the United States took out advertisements, looking for friends and relatives they had lost along the journey or who had preceded them. The over 31,000 records are now available on the searchable database.

The new Web site is called “Information Wanted,” and the entire text of each record will be online within the coming months. The information could include the missing person’s occupation, when they left Ireland and many personal details, said Professor Ruth-Anne Harris, who took on the project of compiling The Pilot advertisements into the database.

Harris, a professor of Irish History, has written several papers and a book using the information in the database before it was published online.

“This database provides the links between Ireland and Irish America,” she said. “The Pilot was a wonderful source for the 19th century immigrant community. It was widely read throughout North America as well as Ireland, and as far as Australia. It was really an international paper.”

One history of The Pilot estimates the newspaper was read by as many as 1.5 million people in its 19th century heyday. First published in 1829 as the Jesuit or Catholic Sentinel, the Pilot became the official newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese in 1908 and is currently in its 175th year.

Through research of immigrant letters, Harris said she has discovered that many immigrants sent newspapers home, although they were poor and newspapers are bulky.

“I learned that the American government kept the cost of sending newspapers and magazines deliberately low. They believed that newspapers would encourage the spread of American democracy,” she said.

Harris said she hopes students and scholars will be able to use the database for research.

“I look forward to seeing it used in a way that will generate better understanding of the Irish immigrant experience in North America,” she said.

BC’s president, Father William P. Leahy, SJ, said he hopes the database will allow people to find “lost” relatives.

“We remember all immigrants who left Ireland, left there without really knowing what was ahead of them, but they built a new home here in the United States,” he said. “We remember all those individuals around the world who have been deprived of roots, of their homeland who are dispossessed, whether they’re on our continent or were victims of the tsunami, no matter what region or what faith.”

Thomas H. O’Connor, a BC historian and Boston Irish history expert, agreed that the study of past immigration is very relevant to the present.

“Ruth-Anne Harris’ work has even greater impact in that it has a decided resonance with the events that we ourselves are living in right this moment. She is describing the kind of human grief and the heart-wrenching anxiety, which is not merely confined to the pages of the past,” he said. “These are not merely historical documents, but they are also expressions of love and affection that put a human face on the impact of great tragedy in our lives.”

The Irish immigrants came to this country with bright faces, anticipating their future happiness in the New World, he added.

“Part of that anticipation of course was now to locate their close relatives, their very dear friends, who had also made the crossing, but who’s whereabouts were unknown,” O’Connor said. ‘‘Those who were left behind, in all probability, they would never see again, but that was a fact I think even further increased their eagerness, their desire, even their desperation to find those who were somewhere near.”

The search was often frantic and pleading, he said.

Geraldine Cameron, whose parents are both first-generation Irish immigrants, found information about a possible distant relative, previously unknown to her. She searched for her maiden name, Driscoll, and found an entry for a man from the same area as her father.

Cameron said the Web site was easy to use at the launching ceremony on March 17, and she would try it again at home.

“For someone who won’t even use the bank machines, it’s easy,” she said.

Since the launch of the Web site, the college has received hundreds of e-mails and letters from people who have discovered genealogical information, said BC spokesman Jack Dunn.

In one such letter, Michael McGovern from Washington D.C. wrote, “I want to say ‘thank you’ for your work on and support of this database. I found who I thought to be a great-great uncle. After speaking with my father and his brother, I’ve learned that the Patrick McGovern (and his brother John who was looking for him in 1845) was my great-great-great uncle.”

“Patrick is the relative no one knew what happened to,” he added. “We are very happy to have found another little piece of the puzzle.”

To view or search the online database, visit http://infowanted.bc.edu.

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