Editor’s note: Richard Jensen retired Professor of History, University of Illinois, Chicago wrote a provocative piece referred to by a reader arguing that the No Irish Need Apply signs were a myth. Here is an abridged version of his article.
The Irish American community harbors a deeply held belief that it was the victim of systematic job discrimination in America, and that the discrimination was done publicly in highly humiliating fashion through signs that announced "Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply."
This "NINA" slogan could have been a metaphor for their troubles—akin to tales that America was a "golden mountain" or had "streets paved with gold." But the Irish insist that the signs really existed and prove the existence of widespread discrimination and prejudice.
The fact that Irish vividly "remember" NINA signs is a curious historical puzzle. There are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location. No particular business enterprise is named as a culprit. No historian, archivist, or museum curator has ever located one ; no photograph or drawing exists.
No other ethnic group complained about being singled out by comparable signs. Only Irish Catholics have reported seeing the sign in America—no Protestant, no Jew, no non-Irish Catholic has reported seeing one.
This is especially strange since signs were primarily directed toward these others: the signs said that employment was available here and invited Yankees, French-Canadians, Italians and any other non-Irish to come inside and apply. The business literature, both published and unpublished, never mentions NINA or any policy remotely like it. The newspapers and magazines are silent. The courts are silent. There is no record of an angry youth tossing a brick through the window that held such a sign. Have we not discovered all of the signs of an urban legend?
The NINA slogan seems to have originated in England, probably after the 1798 Irish rebellion. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries it was used by English to indicate their distrust of the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant. For example the Anglican bishop of London used the phrase to say he did not want any Irish Anglican ministers in his diocese. By the 1820s it was a cliché in upper and upper middle class London that some fussy housewives refused to hire Irish and had even posted NINA signs in their windows. It is possible that handwritten NINA signs regarding maids did appear in a few American windows, though no one ever reported one.
We DO have actual newspaper want ads for women workers that specifies Irish are not wanted; they will be discussed below. In the entire file of the New York Times from 1851 to 1923, there are two NINA ads for men, one of which is for a teenager.
Computer searches of classified help wanted ads in the daily editions of other online newspapers before 1923 such as the Booklyn Eagle, the Washington Post and theChicago Tribune show that NINA ads for men were extremely rare--fewer than two per decade.
The complete absence of evidence suggests that probably zero such signs were seen at commercial establishments, shops, factories, stores, hotels, railroads, union halls, hiring halls, personnel offices, labor recruiters etc. anywhere in America, at any time. NINA signs and newspaper ads for apartments to let did exist in England and Northern Ireland, but historians have not discovered reports of any in the United States, Canada or Australia. The myth focuses on public NINA signs which deliberately marginalized and humiliated Irish male job applicants. The overwhelming evidence is that such signs never existed.
Irish Americans all have heard about them—and remember elderly relatives insisting they existed. The myth had "legs": people still believe it, even scholars. The late Tip O'Neill remembered the signs from his youth in Boston in 1920s; Senator Ted Kennedy reported the most recent sighting, telling the Senate during a civil rights debate that he saw them when growing up
Historically, physical NINA signs could have flourished only in intensely anti-Catholic or anti-Irish eras, especially the 1830—1870 period. Thus reports of sightings in the 1920s or 1930s suggest the myth had become so deeply rooted in Irish-American folk mythology that it was impervious to evidence. Perhaps the Irish had constructed an Evil Other out of stereotypes of outsiders—a demon that could frighten children like the young Ted Kennedy and adults as well.
The challenge for the historian is to explain the origins and especially the durability of the myth. Did the demon exist outside the Irish imagination—and if not how did it get there? This paper will explain how the myth originated and will explore its long-lasting value to the Irish community as a protective device. It was an enhancement of political solidarity against a hostile Other; and a way to insulate a preindustrial non-individualistic group-oriented work culture from the individualism rampant in American culture.
We must first ask if the 19th century American environment contained enough fear or hatred of the Irish community to support the existence of the NINA sentiment? Did the Irish-American community constitute an "Other" that was reviled and discriminated against?
Did more modern Americans recoil in disgust at the premodern Irish immigrants? The evidence suggests that all the criticism of the Irish was connected to one of three factors, their "premodern" behavior, their Catholicism, and their political relationship to the ideals of republicanism. If the Irish had enemies they never tried to restrict the flow of Irish immigration.
Much louder was the complaint that the Irish were responsible for public disorder and poverty, and above all the fears that the Irish were undermining republicanism. These fears indeed stimulated efforts to insert long delays into the citizenship process, as attempted by the Federalists in 1798 and the Know Nothings in the 1850s. Those efforts failed.
As proof of their citizenship the Irish largely supported the Civil War in its critical first year. Furthermore they took the lead in the 1860s in bringing into citizenship thousands of new immigrants even before the technicalities of residence requirements had been met. The Irish claimed to be better republicans than the Yankees because they had fled into exile from aristocratic oppression and because they hated the British so much.
The use of systematic violence to achieve Irish communal goals might be considered a "premodern" trait; it angered many people and three bloody episodes proved it would not work in conflict with American republicanism. In 1863 the Irish rioted against the draft in New York City; Lincoln moved in combat troops who used cannon to regain control of the streets and resume the draft.
In 1871 the Irish Catholics demanded the Protestant Irish not be allowed an Orange parade in New York City, but the Democratic governor sent five armed regiments of state militia to support the 700 city police protecting the one hundred marchers. The Catholics attacked anyway, and were shot down by the hundreds.
In the 1860s and 1870s the Molly Maguires used midnight assassination squads to terrorize the anthracite mining camps in Pennsylvania. The railroad brought in Pinkertons to infiltrate the Mollys, twenty of whom were hung. In every instance Irish Catholics law enforcement officials played a major role in upholding the modern forms of republicanism that emphasized constitutional political processes rather than clandestine courts or mob action. In each instance the Irish leaders of the Catholic Church supported modern republicanism.
After the 1870s the Irish achieved a modern voice through legitimate means, especially through politics and law enforcement. Further enhancing their status as full citizens making a valuable contribution to the community, the Catholics built monumental churches (which were immediately and widely praised), as well as a massive network of schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages and other charitable institutions.
Regardless of their growing status, something intensely real was stimulating the Irish Catholics and only them. The NINA myth fostered among the Irish a misperception or gross exaggeration that other Americans were prejudiced against them, and were deliberately holding back their economic progress. Hence the "chip on the shoulder" mentality that many observers and historians have noted.
As for the question of anti-Irish prejudice: it existed but it was basically anti-Catholic or anti-anti-republican. There have been no documented instances of job discrimination against Irish men.
Was there any systematic job discrimination against the Catholic Irish in the US: possibly, but direct evidence is very hard to come by. On the other hand Protestant businessmen vigorously raised money for mills, factories and construction projects they knew would mostly employ Irishmen, while the great majority of middle class Protestant households in the major cities employed Irish maids. The earliest unquestioned usage found comes from the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, using the phrase in Pendennis, a novel of growing up in London in the 1820s. The context suggests that the NINA slogan was a slightly ridiculous and old-fashioned bit of prejudice Other ethnic groups also had a strong recollection of discrimination but never reported such signs. The Protestant (Orange) Irish do not recall "NINA signs. Were the signs used only against Irish targets?
An electronic search of all the text of the several hundred thousand pages of magazines and books online at Library of Congress, Cornell University Library and the University of Michigan Library, and complete runs of The New York Times and The Nation, turned up about a dozen uses of NINA.
The complete text of New York Times is searchable from 1851 through 1923. Although the optical character recognition is not perfect (some microfilmed pages are blurry), it captures most of the text. A search of seventy years of the daily paper revealed only two classified ads with NINA—one posted by a Brooklyn harness shop that wanted a boy who could write, and a request for a couple to take charge of a cottage upstate.
Unlike the employment market for men, the market for female servants included a small submarket in which religion or ethnicity was specified. Thus newspaper ads for nannies, cooks, maids, nurses and companions sometimes specified "Protestant Only." "I can't imagine, Carrie, why you object so strongly to a Roman Catholic," protests the husband in an 1854 short story. "Why, Edward, they are so ignorant, filthy, and superstitious. It would never do to trust the children alone with one, for there is no telling what they might learn."
Intimate household relationships were delicate matters for some families, but the great majority of maids in large cities were Irish women, so the submarket that refused to hire them could not have been more than ten percent.
The first American usage was a printed song-sheet, dated Philadelphia, 1862. It is a reprint of a British song sheet. The narrator is a maid looking for a job in London who reads an ad in London Times and sings about Irish pride. The last verse was clearly added in America
NO IRISH NEED APPLY.
Written and sung by Miss KATHLEEN O'NEIL.
WANTED.—A smart active girl to do the general housework of a large family, one who can cook, clean plates, and get up fine linen, preferred. N. B.—No Irish need apply
—London Times Newspaper, Feb. 1862.
I'm a simple Irish girl, and I'm looking for a place, I've felt the grip of poverty, but sure that's no disgrace, 'Twill be long before I get one, tho' indeed it's hard I try, For I read in each advertisement, "No Irish need apply."
Alas! for my poor country, which I never will deny, How they insult us when they write, "No Irish need apply." Now I wonder what's the reason that the fortune-favored few, Should throw on us that dirty slur, and treat us as they do, Sure they all know Paddy's heart is warm, and willing is his hand, They rule us, yet we may not earn a living in their land,
. . . .
Ah! but now I'm in the land of the "Glorious and Free," And proud I am to own it, a country dear to me, I can see by your kind faces, that you will not deny, A place in your hearts for Kathleen, where "All Irish may apply." Then long may the Union flourish, and ever may it be, A pattern to the world, and the "Home of Liberty!"
In 1862 or 1863 at the latest John Poole wrote the basic NINA song that became immensely popular within a matter of months.
NO IRISH NEED APPLY.
Written by JOHN F. POOLE, and sung, with immense success, by the great Comic-Vocalist of the age, TONY PASTOR.
I'm a dacint boy, just landed from the town of Ballyfad;
I want a situation: yis, I want it mighty bad.
I saw a place advartised. It's the thing for me, says I;
But the dirty spalpeen ended with: No Irish need apply.
Whoo! says I; but that's an insult—though to get the place I'll try.
So, I wint to see the blaggar with: No Irish need apply.
I started off to find the house, I got it mighty soon;
There I found the ould chap saited: he was reading the TRIBUNE.
I tould him what I came for, whin he in a rage did fly:
No! says he, you are a Paddy, and no Irish need apply!
Thin I felt my dandher rising, and I'd like to black his eye—
To tell an Irish Gintleman: No Irish need apply!
I couldn't stand it longer: so, a hoult of him I took,
And I gave him such a welting as he'd get at Donnybrook.
He hollered: Millia murther! and to get away did try,
And swore he'd never write again: No Irish need apply.
He made a big apology; I bid him thin good-bye,
Saying: Whin next you want a bating, add: No Irish need apply! [End Page 408]
Sure, I've heard that in America it always is the plan
That an Irishman is just as good as any other man;
A home and hospitality they never will deny
The stranger here, or ever say: No Irish need apply.
But some black sheep are in the flock: a dirty lot, say I;
A dacint man will never write: No Irish need apply!
Sure, Paddy's heart is in his hand, as all the world does know,
His praties and his whiskey he will share with friend or foe;
His door is always open to the stranger passing by;
He never thinks of saying: None but Irish may apply.
And, in Columbia's history, his name is ranking high;
Thin, the Divil take the knaves that write: No Irish need apply!
Ould Ireland on the battle-field a lasting fame has made;
We all have heard of Meagher's men, and Corcoran's brigade. 2
Though fools may flout and bigots rave, and fanatics may cry,
Yet when they want good fighting-men, the Irish may apply,
And when for freedom and the right they raise the battle-cry,
Then the Rebel ranks begin to think: No Irish need apply
After a few rounds of singing and drinking, you could easily read the sign. Note that in the New York City version, Poole changed the London maid to a newly arrived country boy; the maid lamented, but the lad fights back vigorously. This is a song to encourage bullies. The lad starts his job search by scanning the want ads in the city's leading Republican newspaper, the New York Tribune, which seems an unlikely resource for a new arrival from a remote village. In the draft riots of 1863 the Tribune was a special target of Irish mobs.
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.
A likely explanation is the strong group ethos that encouraged Irish to always work together, and resist individualistic attempts to break away. (The slogan tells them that trying to make it in the Yankee world is impossible anyway.) No other European Catholic group seems to have shared that chip on the shoulder (not the Germans or Italians—not even anti-Irish groups such as the French Canadians). Historians agree the political hostility against the Irish Democrats in the Civil War Era was real enough. Critics complained that the Irish had poor morals and a weak work ethic (and hence low status).
Much more serious was the allegation that they were politically corrupt and priest-controlled, and therefore violated true republican values. The Irish could shoot back that The Enemy did not practice equal rights. The Irish community used the allegation of job discrimination on the part of the Other to reinforce political solidarity among (male) voters, which in any case was very high indeed—probably he highest for any political group in American history before the 1960s.
It is easy to identify job discrimination in the 19th century against blacks and Chinese (the latter indeed led by the Irish in California). Discrimination against the Irish was invisible to the non-Irish.
That is perhaps why this urban legend did not die out naturally. Benign Protestant factory owners could not soften the tensions by removing signs that never existed. When Protestants denied NINA that perhaps just reinforced the Irish sense of conspiracy against them (even today people who deny NINA are suspected of prejudice.) The slogan served both to explain their poverty and to identify a villain against whom it was all right retaliate on sight—a donnybrook for the foes of St. Patrick.
The myth justified bullying strangers and helped sour relations between Irish and everyone else. The sense of victimhood perhaps blinded some Irish to the discrimination suffered by other groups.
Perhaps the slogan has reemerged in recent years as the Irish feel the political need to be bona-fide victims. The Potato Famine of course had all the ingredients to make them victims,but it will not do to have the villains overseas: there must be American villains.
If we conclude the Irish were systematically deluding themselves over a period of a century or more about their primary symbol of job discrimination, the next question to ask is, was it all imaginary or was there a real basis for the grievances about the economic hostility of Protestants to Irish aspirations? Historians need to be critical. Because a group truly believes it was a victim, does not make it so. On the other hand, the Irish chip-on-the-shoulder attitude may have generated a high level of group solidarity in both politics and the job market, which could have had a significant impact on the on the occupational experience of the Irish.
How successful were the Irish in the job market? Observers noticed that the Irish tended to work in equalitarian collective situations, such as labor gangs, longshoremen crews, construction crews, or with strong labor unions, usually in units dominated numerically and politically by Irishmen. Wage rates were often heavily influenced by collective activity, such as boycotts, strikes and union contracts, or by the political pressures that could be exerted on behalf of employees in government jobs, or working for contractors holding city contracts, or for regulated utilities such as street railways and subways.
The first arrivals formed all-Irish work crews for construction companies in the building of railroads in the 1830s.
Sometimes the Irish managed to monopolize a specific labor market sector—they comprised 95% of the canal workers by 1840, and 95% of the New York City longshoremen by 1900.
The monopoly of course facilitated group action, and once a crossing point was reached it was possible to exclude virtually all Others.
Solidarity (with or without formal union organization) made for excellent bargaining power, augmented as needed by the use of intimidation, strikes, arson, terrorism and destructive violence to settle any grievances they may have had with their employers, not to mention internal feuds linked to historic feuds back in Ireland. Direct evidence that employers did not want Irish workers is absent. By the early 20th century major corporations had personnel offices and written procedures.
If the Irish had a reputation for being unsatisfactory, the personnel managers never commented upon it. Job discrimination against blacks and Asians continued, and was quite visible in the corporate records and the media. Discrimination against newer immigrant groups can be identified as late as 1941 (when it was banned for government contract holders). No trace of anti-Irish hostility has turned up in the corporate records of the literature of personnel management. Can we prove there was no job discrimination against the Irish? Zero is too hard to "prove"—though no historian has found any evidence of any actual discrimination by any business or factory.
The main "evidence" referenced in the historical literature is three fold:
First, the NINA myth was so convincing that the Irish saw no need to investigate further, or to document the discrimination, or to set up a protective organization. (They of course organized extensively, in both Ireland and America, to protest maltreatment back in Ireland.)
Second, historians point to contemporaries who commented unfavorably on the Irish, generalizing from a handful of cases to create a stereotype of the dominant views of all of American society. Now indeed the 19th century literature is filled with eyewitness and statistical descriptions of Irish drunkenness, crime, violence, poverty, extortion, insanity, ignorance, political corruption and lawless behavior. The reports come from many cities, from Catholics and non-Catholics, social scientists and journalists, Irish and non-Irish. The question is not whether the Irish were admired. (They were not.) The argument that the dominant popular stereotypes of the Irish were especially nasty does not hold up under careful examination. There is no evidence that more than one in a thousand Americans considered the Irish as racially inferior, non-white or ape-like...
The NINA slogan was in the mind's eye, conjured by an enormously popular song from 1862. Job discrimination by the Other was too well known to the Irish to need evidence beyond NINA, or the "recent" burning of the Ursuline convent. Historians engaging in cultural studies must beware the trap that privileges evidence derived from the protests of self-proclaimed victims. Practically every ethnoreligious group in America cherishes its martyrs and warns its members that outsiders "discriminate" against them, or would if they had the opportunity. The NINA slogan had the effect of reinforcing political, social and religious solidarity. It had a major economic role as well, strengthening the politicized work-gang outlook of Irish workers who had to stick together at all times. It warned the Irish against looking for jobs outside their community, and it explained away their low individual rates of upward social mobility. The slogan identified an enemy to blame, and justified bully behavior on the city streets. NINA signs never faded away, even as the Irish prospered and discrimination vanished—they remained a myth about origins that could not be abandoned.