Journal of Social History 36.2 (2002) 405-429
"No Irish Need Apply": A Myth of Victimization
Retired Professor of History, University of Illinois, Chicago
Irish Catholics in America have a vibrant memory of humiliating job discrimination, which featured omnipresent signs proclaiming "Help Wanted--No Irish Need Apply!" No one has ever seen one of these NINA signs because they were extremely rare or nonexistent. The market for female household workers occasionally specified religion or nationality. Newspaper ads for women sometimes did include NINA, but Irish women nevertheless dominated the market for domestics because they provided a reliable supply of an essential service. Newspaper ads for men with NINA were exceedingly rare. The slogan was commonplace in upper class London by 1820; in 1862 in London there was a song, "No Irish Need Apply," purportedly by a maid looking for work. 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. Evidence from the job market shows no significant discrimination against the Irish--on the contrary, employers eagerly sought them out. Some Americans feared the Irish because of their religion, their use of violence, and their threat to democratic elections. By the Civil War these fears had subsided and there were no efforts to exclude Irish immigrants. The Irish 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. [. . .]
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 [End Page 409] 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. 26 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. 27 [. . .]
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 [End Page 410] 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. 33
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 the highest for any political group in American history before the 1960s. [. . .]
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, 39 but it will not do to have the villains overseas: there must be American villains. 40 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. [. . .]
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. 45 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. 46 [. . .]
46. Dale T. Knobel, Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and Nationality in Antebellum America (1986) grossly exaggerates the ridicule toward the Irish—even to the point of reprinting cartoons that had nothing to do with the Irish, after removing the captions. Knobel [End Page 425] haphazardly selected a couple hundred publications (he never says exactly how many); he selected newspaper stories, for example, that dealt with riots and other episodes of intergroup violence which have little relevance to employment or social status. He found 1592 references to the Irish over the years 1820—1860. However sources, such as melodramas with numerous Irish characters, had numerous references, and each was counted as a separate "unit-perception." In all he found 392 different descriptive adjectives, and coded them according to a scheme developed by a psychologist for the language in use a century later. Knobel found a small (statistically insignificant) increase in emphasis on physical characteristics in the depiction of Irish in melodrama and popular fiction in the 1850s (p. 194). He then rebuilt his thesis around this tiny effect; he failed to follow proper research design by not taking a larger sample to see if the effect was caused by sampling error. (He only looked at 33 melodramas, and then split them three ways, so his N is around 12.) Likewise he divided his 30 school texts into three groups. On the whole, Knobel's statistical research design is much too weak to support his conclusions. For more on the problem of content analysis, see Charles Dollar and Richard Jensen, Historian's Guide to Statistics (1971). Knobel's own data reveal that physical references to the Irish were declining in three of the seven categories of writing, including newspapers and popular nonfiction. He mentions adjectives that he found only once—such as "Simian," "bestial," "savage," "brutish" and "low-browed", and many readers have assumed these were "typical" descriptions of the Irish. In contrast to his few sources this project examined 14,000 books and magazine articles, with 48,000 references to the Irish. We used the amazing searchable indexes at the Making of America project, the New York Times, and The Nation, which of course were not available when Knobel wrote. Searches indicate that Americans rarely or never referred to Blacks as "smoked Irish"; they did not call the Irish "white Negroes" nor characterize them as "Simian," "bestial," "savage," or "low-browed." We found exactly one reference to "low browed" (p. 267 in an 1857 humorous essay full of vast exaggerations), (see Thomas Butler Gunn, The Physiology of New York Boarding Houses (1857), 267, online at http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/moa/moa-cgi?notisid=ANY6384) and one to "Simian" (by William Dean Howells, (see http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/moa/moa-cgi?notisid=ABK4014-0083-25) p. 191, in 1891, commenting on the British cartoonists.) Knobel's misreading of the evidence was perpetuated by David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1991) and Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (1995) who uncritically used page 88 of Knobel (which, however, is highly ambiguous and misleading in the first place.) No American in the 19th century is known to have considered Irish as black. The Confederacy for example, welcomed Irish Catholics as citizens and soldiers—even as governors and generals. See Glazer, Encyclopedia, 155—56, 868, 929—30; Jason H. Silverman, "Stars, Bars and Foreigners: The Immigrants and the Making of the Confederacy," Journal of Confederate History (1988) 1:265—88.