Thursday, July 17, 2014

Desperately Seeking

Yesterday, I spent the entire day, sequestered in a genealogy library in a town two hours’ drive from home. It was a long day, indeed, for me and a research buddy—who is driven and task-oriented, I might add.

The reason we headed to that specific library was that the facility boasted a sizeable collection of books on Irish genealogy. If you haven’t noticed, that’s my own task-driven obsession of late.

Since I was there, and since the library had it, I took the opportunity to get my hands on the real, multi-volume bound collection of The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements in the Boston PILOT. The Pilot, if you weren’t up on this aspect of Irish immigration research, was the newspaper in Boston which, for the eighty five year span from 1831 to 1916, published classified ads placed by those seeking their Irish sons, daughters, husbands, wives, siblings or, in some cases, actual friends who had not been heard from since leaving their homeland. The value of the volumes, originally published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society (but now available in searchable form online at as well as through Boston College), is in the fact that each name listed came with a complete description of the person’s origin in Ireland, latest known whereabouts, and often the names of relatives.

Of course, my eye was attuned to any mention of specific members of our own family’s tree, like James Kelly, our ancestor who arrived in Lafayette, Indiana, some time in the 1840s. Here’s one 1852 example of an entry seeking a James Kelly—though unfortunately not ours:
Of James Kelly, from Youghal, parish Youghal, co. Cork, who left home about 5 yrs. ago, landed in Boston & went to New Hampshire—not heard from since. His wife, Catherine Kelly, otherwise O’brien, and child, is in this country and would be glad to hear of his whereabouts.

I imagine they would.

Some of the details included in these classified posts painted quite the picture, as did this father’s submission in 1851:
Of James Kelly, who left his parents in Yanticville, on Sunday 31st August last. He is about 16 years old—stout build, black hair, wore black cloth pants, Alpacca sack coat, glazed silk cap. Any information of him will be thankfully received by his father, John Kelly, Yanticville, Connecticut.

Looking through the listings can tend to give a skewed view of the life of Irish immigrants in the 1800s. Some postings seemed to border on the melodramatic, or even hysterical. Under each day’s heading, “Information Wanted,” would be the entries of those desperately seeking any news of those missing.

One plea directed anyone with knowledge of missing siblings Edward, Catherine and Lucy Hayes to “Please address their afflicted and disconsolate mother, Mary Hayes,” carefully noting a reply address, should those three wayward children have forgotten their own home address.

Another entry, seeking James Smith of parish Ballybeacon in County Tipperary, pleaded, “Please address his sister Ellen, (who is impatiently awaiting an answer).”

There were comments about missing siblings who were “a little insane,” as well as exhortations that named individuals’ responses would be “of an advantage” to them. (Reading some comments like those, I couldn’t help think of a mustachioed Snidely Whiplash holding sister Nell hostage, while intoning those lines as bait for the unsuspecting absent brother.)

After having spent time thumbing through the entries, I realized the books were leaving me with the surely misrepresented impression that there were Irish immigrants flying hither and yon, all over both the United States and Canada, as well as beyond the South Pacific to Australia and New Zealand, leaving in their trail those bewailing their inattentiveness to the ones left back at home.

Sadly—or, no, on the other hand, perhaps it’s just as well—none of our Irish ancestors seemed to be listed among those being sought by family and friends back home, leaving me, one hundred sixty or more years later, to be still desperately seeking those ancestors, myself.


  1. I have to wonder if these wayward immigrants hadn't already contacted family back home in Ireland, would they be inclined to do so in response to the ad. And who read those ads? I imagine the ads could have been answered by neighbors and coworkers.

    1. ...or perhaps the ads were a way to prompt others to jump in and fill in the blanks. A crowdsourcing attempt, of sorts.

      I saw some signs that made me wonder if there weren't debt collectors and such behind some of the ads. One ad fingered the named person as a deserter of the British navy.

      On the other hand, I think many of the ads were placed as a last ditch effort by family in hopes of hearing any news about a loved one who was presumed dead. In many cases, it could be likely that the person sought was dead.

      There were pages of editorial notes at the front of each volume which I would have loved to read. Likely the commentary included conjectures on how many ads brought answers. At first glance, the whole collection represents to me an immense social commentary on life faced by those families torn apart by the "opportunities" of that time period.

  2. Sounds like a most entertaining "read" even if unhelpful for your needs specifically!!

    1. Well, you know how it goes, Iggy: you never know until you try!

      And yes, it was quite fascinating. What a world it must have been back then, with all these Irish immigrants traveling from one end of the continent to another, then back again to yet another destination. It certainly adjusted my personal vision of "migration patterns" during that century.

  3. That book and those people seeking info seems kind of sad..but I suppose no different that some of the sites out there now:)

    1. I never can seem to understand how family members can lose contact with each other--makes me think for sure that something has gone horribly wrong when letters go unanswered.


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