Richard Jensen: The Myth of the Irish -- Just Where Are Those Signs Warning "No Irish Need Apply"?
Irish Catholics in America have a vibrant memory of humiliating job discrimination against their menfolk, which featured omnipresent signs proclaiming"Help Wanted--No Irish Need Apply!” These ads were supposedly aimed at non-Irish men: we have a job and if you are English or German or anything but Irish come in and apply. Today anyone can buy fake NINA signs on Ebay (the fakes are all dated Sept 11, 1915, by the way.) No historian, archivist or museum curator has ever been able to find a genuine NINA signs, nor a newspaper report or court case, nor even a recollection of a particular sign in a particular store. That’s because the signs did not exist. They are as real as leprechauns. Thanks to computerized data bases historians can now search through million of pages of newspapers, including the want ads. Since its start in 1851 the daily New York Times published exactly one NINA ad for males: a livery stable in Brooklyn in 1854 advertised for a teenage boy who could write, and NINA. No one can find NINA want ads for men in the other major newspapers that can be searched (such as the Brooklyn Eagle, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, nor in the numerous small town papers). The market for female household workers occasionally specified religion or nationality. Newspaper ads for women sometimes did include NINA, because a small proportion of hiring women (less than 10%) were reluctant to have a Catholic inside their home. Irish women nevertheless dominated the market for domestics because they provided a reliable supply of an essential service.
So where did the myth come from and why has it endured? The slogan was commonplace in upper class London by 1820—referring to English disdain for Irish Protestants (not Catholics). In 1862 in London there was a song,"No Irish Need Apply," purportedly by a maid looking for work who found such a sign in a window. The song reached America and was modified to depict a man recently arrived in America who sees a NINA ad and confronts and beats up the culprit. The song was an immediate hit, and is the source of the myth. The history was aural, not visual, based on imagination not actual discrimination.
Were the Irish Catholics actually discriminated against in the American job market? Statistical data from numerous census sources shows no measurable discrimination against them. It is of course possible that a particular firm here or there refused to hire Irish, but not a single example of that has actually been discovered. Railroads—the biggest employers in the 19th century-- insisted they did not discriminate and research into payroll records shows the Irish were promoted at the same rate as other ethnics. By contrast discrimination against Blacks, Chinese, and (in the early 20th century) Italians and Poles is readily apparent in the census data. We have direct evidence that major employers eagerly sought out Irish workers and borrowed millions to build factories and railroads that depended on Irish Catholic labor. In Northern Ireland and Britain job and housing discrimination against Irish Catholics was a reality, not a myth, to recent times. While the NINA song crossed the Atlantic, there is no evidence of any systematic or widespread job discrimination against Irish Catholic men in America. Historians can find political hostility that was based on religion (anti-Catholicism) and disgust with Irish political machines. That tension does not seem to have affected the job market. There was some hostile criticism of the Irish because of their “Papist” religion, their use of violence, and their supposed threat to democratic traditions. By the Civil War these fears had subsided. The Irish had proven their patriotism; their many churches, schools, colleges, hospitals and charitable agencies demonstrated an Irish Catholic commitment to civic betterment. The remarkable success of Irish politicians over the last 150 years affords proof that they were better than anyone else at winning the votes of non-Irish. Although there were anti-Catholic attacks on Al Smith in 1928 and John Kennedy in 1960, neither was criticized for being Irish. Indeed no major politician in America (outside a few in the deep South like Tom Watson) ever made anti-Catholicism or anti-Irish arguments part of his platform. There never were laws to exclude Irish immigrants because they were in fact needed and welcomed. The immigration restriction movement of the 1890-1930 period was led by Irish-controlled labor unions, and did not target the Irish in any way.
The Irish were not individualists. They worked in gangs in job sites they could control by force. The NINA slogan told them they had to stick together against the Protestant Enemy, in terms of jobs and politics. The NINA myth justified physical assaults, and persisted because it aided ethnic solidarity. After 1940 the solidarity faded away, yet NINA remained as a powerful memory--Senator Ted Kennedy"remembers" seeing the signs when he was growing up in a highly sheltered environment in the late 1930s.
Larry Clay - 5/23/2007
This last comment violates the discussion board rules, does it not?
'Begorra' and 'I have always thought it to be the nature of Irishmen to spin tales, think of leprechauns here, but I believed with all my heart, bejesus...' are blatant attempts to poke fun at the Irish using stereotypical language. But this is only following in Jensen's shadow: Siting the song by Poole as the origin of the myth, he comments in his Mar 29 2001 version of this work(found at www.h-net.msu.edu) "After a few rounds of singing and drinking, you could read the sign. And a few more rounds and you could see the leprechaun." This, his expressions of Irish hooliganism, and his admission that he was a victim of it, and his dismissal of any notion of real discrimination against the Irish, call into question his motives for writing. The acceptance of the term 'Paddy wagon’ is an indication of the climate that the Irish faced upon their arrival. I find the argument engaging, but it is sadly, for a professor, not very even handed at all. Victimhood is a sad state, so is cronyism, and so is intellectual dishonesty. To avoid the appearance of such, one should avoid justifying, or actually exhibiting, the bigotry that one is claiming did not exist.
I recommend doing a search of ads from any northeastern newspaper to anyone interested in understanding this. You will surely find many examples that refer to female domestic help that specifically use the phrase 'no Irish need apply'.
Vernon Clayson - 3/18/2005
So Ted Kennedy remembered seeing "No Irish Need Apply" signs, yet, it appears from this article there never were any - but this is amazing as Ted Kennedy has, for the first time ever, been caught in a prevarication of fact. Begorra, to think that any of us would live long enough to see this day. I have always thought it to be the nature of Irishmen to spin tales, think of leprechauns here, but I believed with all my heart, bejesus, that Teddy spun no tales.