Landing on American soil with little more than what they could carry, thousands of Irish immigrants announced their arrival in newspapers, hoping to find lost relatives and friends. The Boston Pilot, the newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese, ran more than 40,000 such ads in the 1800s and early 1900s, and to academics such as Ruth-Ann Mellish Harris, the information was scholarly gold.
Boston may have been a haven for Irish immigrants, but “the Irish had such a different way of life back home, they were bound to have an awful time of it in America,” Dr. Harris told the Globe in 1986. “And many of them did.”
In a column called “Missing Friends,” many hoped to find what seemed so elusive: the familiarity of a spouse or a sibling, or connections to their Irish past. Decades later, Dr. Harris turned that trove of information into what became an online database linking Irish America to Ireland.
Dr. Harris was preparing a syllabus for a history course she planned to teach this fall at Boston College as an adjunct professor when she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died Sept. 5 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She was 76 and lived in Jamaica Plain.
Joseph Lee, a former colleague now a professor of Irish studies at New York University, called Dr. Harris “a true pioneer in identifying areas in what we would now regard as neglected research. She put a human face on everything.”
Combing through ads, she gleaned information about migration patterns and how people managed in a new country.
“I don’t see them as sad and miserable,” Dr. Harris told the Globe in 1992. “It’s rough to be an immigrant and cope with a new society, but mostly young people were coming, not families. I think this country might have been rather fun for them. There’s a kind of dignity in work. Immigrants work awfully hard, but tend to be optimistic about what they’re doing.”
She found that the “ambitious” and “the restless ones” left Ireland for a new world.
“In many ways, she had a sympathy for the weaker, for the underdog, but without being sentimental about it,” Lee said.
Her interest in immigration and migration may have stemmed from her own past. Born in Liberia to British parents, she was sent to England in the early 1940s, and then to Canada during World War II to live with her grandparents. Five years later, she and her parents reunited.
“I suppose that’s a major reason why I’ve always been interested in people and why they move,” Dr. Harris said in a 2005 interview quoted on Boston College’s website. “When you collect immigration stories, having one of your own gives you a certain insight.”
Her husband, John, said Dr. Harris felt like “an outsider, but an outsider with great perspective. She had the rare ability to objectively look at situations, and not just look at what she was expecting.”
During research that included reviewing many published papers and books, she often looked at how women fared in particular moments in history.
“When you looked at what the women were doing, it gave you a better sense of the reality of what was going on,” said her daughter Catherine of Woodbury, Vt. “It was looking beyond the traditional and understanding that the everyday lives of women said more about the conditions than did the political situation.”
She had a sympathy ‘for the weaker, for the underdog, but without being sentimental about it.’
Ruth-Ann Mellish attended Wheaton College in Illinois. She later finished her bachelor’s degree at Tufts University.
She and John Harris, who also attended Wheaton, married in 1954. She began working as an editor with a Methodist church publication in 1962. Four years later, they moved to Winchester.
Already involved in the civil rights movement while in the Midwest, the Harrises helped push to expand to Winchester the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, or Metco, a voluntary school desegregation program that brought Boston children to suburban school districts.
They moved to Nigeria in the mid-1960s under a Ford Foundation grant for his research. They returned to Africa, this time in Nairobi, in 1968. Dr. Harris taught at a boys’ high school, where her energy and passion helped to keep students on track, her husband said.
In the 1970s, she obtained a master’s degree and a doctorate from Tufts. Her dissertation, “The Nearest Place That Wasn’t Ireland: Early Nineteenth-Century Irish Labor Migration,” was about seasonal migration patterns that brought many Irish immigrants to Britain.
The field of Irish studies was in its nascent days when Dr. Harris helped start an Irish studies program at Northeastern University. Financial troubles contributed to the program ending, and she moved to Boston College, where she became a scholar in a discipline that was still evolving.
“It was not an established field, so it must have been a difficult road,” said Gustav Papanek, a professor emeritus at Boston University and president of the Boston Institute for Developing Economies. “It took a lot of courage.”
Thomas Hachey, a professor and executive director of the Boston College Center for Irish Programs, said that “the people I spoke with in the field were very impressed by her work and her commitment. She was renowned for being very close with her students.”
Her personable nature helped draw people out, family and friends said. “She was one of the few people who always conveyed that she really cared when she asked how you are,” Papanek said. “It was clear that she meant it . . . she was truly interested in your answer.”
In 2005, Boston College launched a website that compiled her work: “Information Wanted: A Database of Advertisements for Irish Immigrants Published in The Boston Pilot,” as infowanted.bc.edu.
“I look forward to seeing it used in a way that will generate better understanding of the Irish immigrant experience in North America,” Dr. Harris told the Boston Pilot that year.
In addition to her husband, John, and daughter Catherine, Dr. Harris leaves another daughter, Dorothy of Rochester, N.H.; a son, Rees of Shelburne, Vt.; and eight grandchildren.
A celebration of Dr. Harris’s life will be held at Boston College on a date to be announced.Emma Stickgold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.