Emigration has been a recurring tragedy in Irish family life during the past 200 years. Nowhere is that more evident than in the pages of American newspapers where down the years members of once close-knit Irish families have placed advertisements in an attempt to trace missing parents, brothers or sisters. One such advertisement under the headline "Missing Friends" first appeared in a Boston Newspaper, "The Pilot" on 1st October, 1831. It was placed by the American Emigration Commission in an attempt to find Patrick McDermott, "a native of County Kildare" whose wife and five children had just arrived in Boston. It was the first of thousands of such advertisements placed in the Pilot Newspaper over the next 85 years. The first reference to a person from Athy in these advertisements was in the newspaper of 14th October, 1848 when Robert Browne sought information on Philip Butler of Gormanstown, near Athy who was supposed to be working in a sawmill in Boston. In November of the following year two advertisements appeared relating to Athy persons. The first referred to :-
"Christopher Moore and Mrs. Catherine Cummings, natives of Athy who emigrated to this country, Catherine in 1825 and Christopher in 1831 and landed in Quebec. When last heard of they were in Marshfield Upper, Canada."
Their brother David, then based in Massachusetts was the enquirer. The second request for information came from James Kelly whose mother and family, all from Athy, emigrated to the American Continent in July 1849, landing in Quebec. On 13th August, 1853 Catherine Keyes inserted an advertisement in an attempt to trace her brother "Patrick Keyes, native of Athy who left there 5 years last June - when last heard from he was in New York."
The following April Michael Kirwan of Athy was being sought by his brother Patrick, while in May 1854 The Pilot carried a father's sad plea. He was James Brennan who referred to his
"daughter Elizabeth from Athy, aged 21 years who arrived in New York in December 1853. When she landed I was in Coaticook, Lower Canada, she wrote to me at the time and I sent her some money which she acknowledged. I wrote the following May to her but received no answer."
We were never made aware if father and daughter were ever re-united.
That same year Mrs. Mary Birmingham, then living in Beaver Meadows, Pennsylvania wanted to hear of her son Martin whom she described as :-
"son of Patrick Birmingham and Mary Kelly of Geraldine Athy."
In the same edition of The Pilot, Edward Moore sought information as to the whereabouts of his mother, Mary Moore from Athy "who was last heard of in New York."
June 1855 saw another Athy family featured in an advertisement in The Pilot. John and Edward Corcoran of Athy "who left Ireland about eight years ago and landed in Quebec" were the subject of an advertisement placed by their brother Michael.
The Commissioners for Emigration who had placed the first advertisement in 1831 were acting again in August 1855 on behalf of Mrs. Julia Steacum who had arrived in New York from Athy in December 1854. She had accompanied her husband Matthew and her six children to America, but he soon departed for Cincinnati leaving four of their children in Staten Island Hospital and his wife and one child in Albany. The advertisement continued :-
"Since then nothing has been heard from him, but it has been ascertained that he never reached his destination, hence the worst fears are entertained for his safety. He was 57 years of age with dark hair."
In the following month Mary Birmingham was again seeking information on her son Martin "whom I left with my father in Geraldine, Athy when leaving Ireland about 20 years ago." In the same advertisement enquiries were made of Mary's brother "John Kelly, formerly of Geraldine, Athy."
Just before Christmas 1855 William Bourke placed an advertisement in the Boston Newspaper. He was attempting to make contact with his brother Henry, a baker from Athy, County Kildare "who emigrated to this country about 10 years ago and is supposed to be in Boston or it's vicinity."
The advertisements of 150 years ago make sad reading and give a rare insight into the difficulties of those who took to the Emigrant ships after the earlier departure of family members. How successful the various advertisers were in tracing missing relatives we do not know. The value today of these old newspaper advertisements lies in the information they provide for genealogists and historians on Irish emigrants of the period.
The New England Historic Genealogical Society has published three books of Boston Pilot advertisements under the title "The Search for Friends" covering the years 1831 to 1856. The references in this article are taken from these books which make fascinating if sad reading.