No such thing as "No Irish Need Apply" signs argues historian

Was the 'No Irish Need Apply' sign just a myth?

Did the Irish feel discriminated against before the NINA slogan became current? First note the last stanza of the 1862 London song shown above. If the NINA slogan had been current in America surely the songwriter would not have included the line "you will not deny, A place in your hearts for Kathleen, where 'All Irish may apply."' The second evidence comes from the Confederacy in 1863. The Rebels hailed and incited Irish unrest in the North. A major editorial in the Richmond Enquirer May 29, 1863 enumerated multiple reasons for the Irish to hate the Yankees, such as convent attacks and church burnings. The catalog of grievances focused on anti-Catholicism and did not mention job discrimination or NINA—probably because the Poole song had not yet reached Richmond. 25

We can now summarize our explanation of where the NINA myth comes from. There probably were occasional handwritten signs in London homes in the 1820s seeking non-Irish maids. The slogan became a cliché in Britain for hostility to the Irish. Tens of thousands of middle-class English migrated to America, and it is possible a few used the same sort of handwritten sign in the 1830—1850 period; the old British cliché was probably known in America.

There is no evidence for any printed NINA signs in America or for their display at places of employment other than private homes. Poole's song of 1862 popularized the phrase. The key change that made the second version such a hit was gender reversal—the London song lamented the maid's troubles, the New York City version called for Irishmen to assert their manhood in defiance of a cowardly enemy.

By 1863 every Irishman knew and resented the slogan—and it perhaps helped foment the draft riots that year. The stimulus was not visual but rather aural—a song about NINA sung only by the Irish. There was indeed such a song, and it became quite popular during the 1863 crisis of the draft riots of the Civil War; it still circulates. The song was a war cry that encouraged Irish gangs to beat up suspicious strangers and it warned Irish jobseekers against breaking with the group and going to work for The Enemy.

Recollection is a group phenomenon—especially in a community so well known for its conviviality and story telling. Congressman Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts grew up hearing horror stories of how the terrible Protestants burned down a nearby convent school run by the Catholic Ursuline nuns. When O'Neill went to college he was astonished to read in a history book that it happened a century earlier in 1834—he had assumed it was a recent event.

It is most unlikely that businesses in Boston routinely displayed NINA signs in the 20th century and yet left no trace whatever in the records. People who "remember" the signs in the 20th century only remember the urban legend.

Political mobilization against the Irish was never successful. The most important effort was the Know Nothing movement, which swept the Northeast and South in 1854—56. It was a poorly led grass roots movement that generated no significant or permanent anti-Catholic or anti-Irish legislation. There was no known employment discrimination. Know-Nothing employers, for example, were never accused of firing their Irish employees. The Know-Nothings were primarily a purification movement. They believed that all politicians were corrupt, that the Democrats were the worst, and that Irish support for Democrats, plus their growing numbers, made them highly suspect. The party lasted longer in the South where it was the anti-Democratic party but only slightly anti-Catholic. Ray Billington concludes "The almost complete failure of the Know-Nothings to carry into effect the doctrines of anti-Catholic and anti-foreign propagandists contributed to the rapid decline of this nativistic party."

Likewise there were few visible effects of the APA movement of the 1890s, or the KKK in the 1920s. The conclusion is that, despite occasional temptations, Americans considered their "equal rights" republicanism to be incompatible with systematic economic or political discrimination against the Irish. Given the overlap of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice how can historians tell the difference? In both cases, the anti's would attack on political grounds—elections, candidates, appointments, bosses, machines, election frauds, registration laws, civil service reform.  Anti-Catholics would focus on certain issues, especially saints and Mariolatry, parochial schools, sacramentalism, convents, missions to the Indians, and Bible-reading in schools.

They also were intensely alert to activities of the Papacy, and the political power of priests and bishops. The Vatican certainly controlled ecclesiastical affairs, but it carefully avoided American political issues.

By 1865 politicians realized that bishops and priests largely avoided even informal electoral endorsements of any kind—they were far less active than pietistic Protestants, as the annals of temperance and anti-slavery demonstrate.

Were Irish men the victims of job discrimination in reality? That was possible without any signs of course. The evidence is exceedingly thin—the Irish started poor and worked their way up slowly, all along believing that the Protestant world hated them and blocked their every move. Contemporary observers commented that the Protestant Irish were doing well in America, but that preindustrial work habits were blocking progress for the Catholics. As Thernstrom has shown, Irish had one of the lowest rates of upward mobility.