No Irish Need Apply by John F. Poole, 1862, sung by Brendan Nolan .
[Refresh control-R to hear it again; needs RealAudio plug-in]
online at http://www.uic.edu/~rjensen/no-irish.htm

"No Irish Need Apply": A Myth of Victimization

Richard Jensen

to appear in Journal of Social History

revised 6-25-2001
Write me at RJensen@uic.edu

Introduction
Irish Americans have a deeply held belief that they were victims 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 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 it really happened. The "myth" can be phrased this way:

         "Unskilled workers and servants, especially, 
         encountered the ubiquitous "No Irish Need Apply" notices 
         when they searched for jobs in Boston, New York, and other major 
         cities." 
Kerby Miller, Emigrants and Exiles (1985), 323.
That some middle class English housewives insisted "No Irish Need Apply" regarding maids and servants was a cliche in middle class London by the 1820s. It probably refers to handwritten window signs, but may have included British newspaper ads for maids and other household workers. It was never a cliche in the USA, except among the Irish themselves. It is possible that handwritten signs regarding maids did appear in a few American windows, though no one ever mentions this. Probably an occasional newspaper ads used the exact phrase, but many ads for maids did specify "Protestant." Apart from personal household workers, the NINA slogan in want ads was rare (none has turned up); few people actually saw them. References by Handlin and other historians are not to the ads, but to a handful of editorials in Irish Catholics newspapers that condemned such ads. (As Terry Anbinder has noted, quoting the Catholic press in 1857, the newspaper ads had stopped appearing by then.)

The myth however focuses on something else: public signs that marginalized and humiliated Irish male workers. The evidence however suggests that probably no such signs ever existed at commercial establishments, shops, factories, stores, hotels, railroads, union halls, hiring halls, personnel offices, labor recruiters etc. anywhere in America.

Of course Ebay.com sells these signs. But they are all modern fakes, made by novelty sign makers for the Irish market. The fact that Irish vividly "remember" seeing them is a curious historical puzzle. Only Irish Catholics could see the sign: No historian, archivist, or museum curator has ever located one; no photograph or drawing exists. Only Irish Catholics could see the sign. In America no Protestant, no Jew, no non-Irish Catholic ever reported seeing a NINA sign. This is especially strange since the ostensible message of the signs was directed toward them--saying that employment was available here and inviting Yankees, French-Canadians, Italians and any other non-Irish to apply. From the other side, 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 Irish youth tossing a brick through the window that holds such a sign. What we have is all the signs of an urban legend.

A major museum exhibit, Gaelic Gotham, about New York City did not have any NINA signs.
Wealthy Protestants who summered in Maine brought their servants along and asked the bishop to help arrange for Catholic services for them. James O'Toole, Militant and Triumphant: WIlliam Henry O'Connell and the catholic Church in Boston, 1859-1944 (1992), 42.

Irish Americans all have *heard* about them -- and remember elderly relatives saying they did *see* them. Historically actual signs could have flourished only in intensely anti-Catholic or anti-Irish eras, especially the 1840-1863 period. Thus when Irishmen recalled seeing them in the 20th century it suggests the myth is so deeply rooted in folk mythology that it is impervious to evidence. And it suggests that the same myth was prevalent 150 years ago. (In other words, when someone said "I saw the sign in the 1920s" that misperception is itself suggestive that the misperception went back decades. The myth had "legs": people still believe it, even scholars. The late Tip O'Neill said he saw the signs as a youth in Boston in 1920s; Senator Ted Kennedy has the most recent sighting: he told the Senate he saw them when growing up (he was born in 1932 and grew up in a highly protective family.] Perhaps we can explain the durability of the myth by relating it to non-individualistic group-oriented Irish work culture.

 

Kennedy said, "I remember `Help Wanted' signs in stores when I was growing up saying `No Irish Need Apply .'" [Congressional Record Senate Sept 9, 1996 Page: S10054

Something odd was happening, which affected only the Irish. An answer is that the stimulus was not visual but rather aural--a song sung only by the Irish. It became quite popular during the 1863 crisis of the draft riots of the Civil War, and still circulates. The downside of the myth is that it gave Irish gangs a good reason to beat up strangers (the song explicitly encouraged this response) and it warned Irish jobseekers against breaking with the group and going to work for The Enemy. The myth fostered among the Irish a misperception or gross exaggeration that other Americans were prejudiced against them as Irish, 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 anti-Catholic or political and had no links to employment. (The Irish tended to equate themselves with Catholicism, so that anti-Catholicism equalled anti-Irish prejudice. Other Catholics groups, especially the French Canadians, greatly resented this attitude.) Was there job discrimination against the Catholic Irish in the US: possibly, but no one has offered any direct evidence whatever. On the contrary, Protestant businessmen vigorously raised money for mills, factories and construction projects they knew would mostly employ Irishmen.

 

  1. Did actual "No Irish" signs exist? The evidence is overwhelming, no.