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Bonnie
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"No Irish Need Apply": A Myth of Victimization

Richard Jensen
Journal of Social History 36.2 (2002) 405-429

[...]

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 ... The business literature, both published and unpublished, never mentions NINA or any policy remotely like it.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?

[...]

http://tigger.uic.edu/~rjensen/no-irish.htm

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Macavity
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During a documentary I saw (sorry I can't remember where) they mentioned a political party in the US named the "know nothings," or something like that. One of their main platforms was to control Irish immigration. Does anyone remember anything about that, and how it might relate to this post?

Bonnie, how did you get negative 33 posts??

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meanjelly
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Well the op is asking if the signs existed not if Irish discrimination existed. I have no idea if the signs existed. However, The Know Nothings were very real as was their nativist platform. In the 1920’s groups like the Klan were also very powerful and ran on anti-Catholic nativist platforms. Therefore, the discrimination is real but the signs may not, or if they were real, they were not as widespread as stories lead you to believe.

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ufonium2
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I'm not sure about the US, but I just finished "The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Domestic Servant" and it contains several help wanted ads from London that specifically state "No Irish".

So, I'm not old enough to remember a "No Irish Need Apply" sign in the US or anywhere else, but I'm inclined to believe they did exist.

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StarlandVocalBand
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This academic paper gives some specific examples of anti-Irish discrimination in the US.

Noel Ignatiev's book How The Irish Became White also contains a number of well-researched incidents.

The author of the paper cited in the OP may be basing his argument on a linguistic quibble--whether or not the exact wording "No Irish Need Apply" ever appeared on a sign or newspaper advertisement, the fact is that "Only Americans need apply" and "Protestants only" were both quite common in the early 19th century.

As Jensen notes, the popularity of the phrase as a catch-all for anti-Irish discrimination was cemented by the 1860s rise to popularity of the song "No Irish Need Apply." Certainly, "no Irish need apply" was a much catchier (and easy to rhyme) phrase than "Protestants only."

This group of Massachusetts reenactors has a very good piece about this on the site. It includes an 1864 editorial from Boston's Catholic newspaper about the realities of anti-Irish discrimination in employment, as well as scans of some contemporary ads.

My larger point about Jensen's article is that it seems disingenuous--the "victimization" he reports was not a "myth" at all. Irish people were discriminated against, routinely, in the US in the early 19th century. The only possible "myth" here would be in the exact wording of a newspaper or window advertisement, to which my answer would have to be, "So what?"

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Bonnie
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quote:
I'm not sure about the US, but I just finished "The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Domestic Servant" and it contains several help wanted ads from London that specifically state "No Irish".
But Jenkins acknowledges that the specification "No Irish" originated in England and continued on American shores. Accordingly, he's found several "NINA"-containing "help wanted" classified ads in several 19th-century American newspapers, but these were primarily appeals for female domestics or nannies and the like [1]. Rarely was one of these small ads that bore the "NINA" restriction targeted for male workers.

He also acknowledges that hand-lettered "NINA" signs sometimes appeared in the windows of British homeowners looking to hire (female) maids and cooks. In fact, the British song to which he refers has as its protagonist a young Irish female looking for employment in England and confronted with such a sign. Jenkins points out that this "young Irishwoman" version was later tailored for American consumption and finally became transformed to focus on the frustrations of a young Irish-American male who -- when confronted with such a thing -- not only beats up the bloke who'd posted the sign, but also extracts a promise that he'd never post such a sign again.

Jenkins argues that it's this song, adopted by the Irish-American community of the late 19th century, that seems to have colored the collective memory that "NINA" signs were targeted to Irish-Catholic males and were everywhere in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and the like.

But there seems to be a paucity of evidence (outside of anecdotal evidence) to support that these signs existed or were prominently displayed in the windows and on the walls of businesses seeking to hire male workers. Jenkins contends that museum curators, immigration experts, and social historians have yet to unearth an original sign, though "reproductions of originals" seem to be all over the place. Importantly, no contemporaneous writings (either in newspapers or in personal papers, such as diaries and letters) seem to touch on these signs.

Jenkins feels that it's this "remembrance" of NINA signs that not only greatly exacerbated the "'us' vs. 'them'" attitude already deeply felt by an Irish immigrant population faced with discrimination, but that also reinforced a tendency toward violent reaction to discrimination.

It's important to note that Jenkins doesn't argue that Irish-Americans didn't face discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere, but he proposes that the notion that potential employers seeking pools of able male workers were posting signs reading specifically "No Irish Need Apply" is a myth, one embraced by Irish-Americans (to their detriment, he'd argue), fueled by a long-lost memory of a 19th-century song, and kept alive by word-of-mouth passed from one generation to another.

-- Bonnie

[1] Jenkins mentions, however, that there were lots of classified ads targeted for a "Protestant Woman" or a Scottish or German girl, for example. In essence, then, yes, one can find quite a few "help wanted" classified ads from the 1850s to the end of the century that either directly or indirectly specify "No Irish," but again these were overwhelmingly directed at female workers.

[Oops, substitute "Jensen" for "Jenkins," everywhere above.]

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StarlandVocalBand
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But Bonnie, I don't see the point of the article (and I skimmed it, and still don't see the point!) Worse, I don't see why Jensen chose such an incredibly inflammatory title.

If Jensen is arguing that "Irish people saw signs that implicitly or explicitly indicated that the employers wanted to hire non-Irish Protestant workers, and then they conflated those signs with the sign described in the popular song 'No Irish Need Apply,' and thus they misremembered the signs they actually saw as reading 'No Irish Need Apply,'" then his title is tendentious and misleading.

Because, as I said above, the "victimization" is not a "myth"--the only "myth" is to the actual wording of the signs and advertisements that did, in fact, exist in the US indicating employers' resistance to hiring Irish Catholic workers.

So if Jensen's goal was to write an article outlining how people's recollections are shaped by the wording they hear in popular songs, why choose that title?

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StarlandVocalBand
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quote:
Originally posted by Bonnie:
Importantly, no contemporaneous writings (either in newspapers or in personal papers, such as diaries and letters) seem to touch on these signs.

The site I cited above includes the following passage from the 1864 Pilot editorial:

quote:
The taboo on Irish help is taken off, in a great measure, from the advertisements, and we do not see so frequently as we used to the line “No Irish Need Apply.”

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Vivling
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The "No Irish Need Apply" sign is specifically mentioned in Frank McCourt's book 'Tis, but he doesn't actually see one, just mentions it during his rant about how New Englanders treated the Irish.

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snopes
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quote:
The site I cited above includes the following passage from the 1864 Pilot editorial
But, as noted, this refers to help-wanted advertisements for servants, not signs hung in the windows of businesses.

The editorial quoted explicitly notes:

quote:
While we do not question the right to except the Irish in the way they are so frequently excepted in advertisements, - especially in advertisements for domestic help . . .
- snopes
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Bonnie
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Ah, I'll agree with you on a point, StarlandVocalBand: I do think that "No Irish Need Apply" Signs: A Myth of Victimization would've better distilled the thrust of Jensen's study (though Jensen does feel that anti-Irish discrimination after the Civil War may not have been nearly so prevalent or intensive as may now be commonly accepted).

But, as you've also suspected, I think you and I are approaching this from different angles.

It may seem trivial in light of the larger scope of 19th-century anti-Irish sentiment, but let's look at this with reference to, yes, a specific phrase, because I think that gets to "urban folklore," which is where my interest lies. (Please note that I'm not trying to minimize the issue of anti-Irish discrimination or feelings about anti-Irish discrimination.)

There seems to be a very prevalent belief that our Irish-American forefathers were frequently confronted with signs in shop windows reading "Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply," even well after the Civil War, when Irish-American males had a firm foothold in the workforce.

Jensen essentially contends that the perception of this slogan-bearing sign became a sort of rallying cry for the Irish-American community; consequently, he asks for physical and contemporaneous evidence that signs such as these were ever widely posted in businesses looking for male workers.

Today, it's one of those "everyone's seen one [in a book]" or "everyone's heard about them [from one's grandfather]" kind of things. Plenty of reproductions of "signs" exist, but are these based on presumed originals or were they manufactured as reminders of an important rallying cry?

As you've pointed out, the specific restriction "No Irish Need Apply" in newspaper advertisements thankfully became less prevalent after the Civil War; englightened newspapers of the day decried the sentiment behind this phrase. Why, then, have folks -- including such Irish-American notables as Tip O'Neill and Ted Kennedy -- reported seeing actual anti-Irish "NINA" signs in shop windows in the heart of an important Irish-American community into the 1920s and '30s?

I think that's where the value of Jensen's paper lies. I don't see this phenomenon as trivial -- in the absence of tangible evidence for original signs, he's suggesting that we may well have manufactured a collective memory for signs and carried this well into the 20th century. (And, perhaps, we've misinterpreted "reproductions" posted earlier in the 20th century as holdovers from earlier discriminatory times.)

Interesting paper, I think, especially the call for authentic images of these signs. Granted, though, we might have been better served by an alternate title.

-- Bonnie

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PatYoung
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I don't know if there were ever signs which said specifically "No Irish Neew Apply". Jensen himself admits they might have existed, although they would have been "extremely rare".

I find it it strange that Jensen discounts the notion of such discrimination during the 1920s which was the period of the rising of the "Second" KKK which was formed as much to confront what was seen as rising Irish Catholic political power as it was to perform its typical role of terrorizing African Americans.

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Ghost on Toast
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I have certainly no doubt there were NINA signs but I don't believ it was specifically the Irish that took the brunt of the flack there.

Slightly off topic I guess but another sign that went up in history, and excuse me if it offends but these are not my words, 'No, Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs' or words to that effect in boarding houses. In fact, I think its the title of an autobigraphy of a famous person, maybe Phil Lynott (A black irish man).

Certainly even today som pubs in England do carry signs at the door saying 'No Travellers' - even though it is illegal to do so.

(Note: By travellers they mean Gypsies not just backpackers!!)

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Jay Tea
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'No Irish-No Blacks' was a common sign in the windows of boarding houses after WWII in London - No Irish No Blacks No Dogs is an autobigraphy by John Lydon I do believe - Lydon's parents were Irish Immigrants....

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trollface
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quote:
Originally posted by Ghost on Toast:
Slightly off topic I guess but another sign that went up in history, and excuse me if it offends but these are not my words, 'No, Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs' or words to that effect in boarding houses.

Lenny Henry mentions these in one of his stand-up routines. He says that if you were a black Irish Wolfhound that you had no chance.

quote:
Certainly even today som pubs in England do carry signs at the door saying 'No Travellers' - even though it is illegal to do so.
I can confirm this. I was also once went into a pub and was told "sorry, no Mohecans". All I could say was "my hair doesn't want a drink".

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Ghost on Toast
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I've seen a number of pub saying 'no travellers' which although I can see where they are coming from, is predujiced.

But no Mohicans!! That sounds like a 'made up on the spot' rule! How unfair!

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Hell's Granny
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quote:
Originally posted by Jay Tea:
'No Irish-No Blacks' was a common sign in the windows of boarding houses after WWII in London - No Irish No Blacks No Dogs is an autobigraphy by John Lydon I do believe - Lydon's parents were Irish Immigrants....

Yes, I was about to say exactly that. I was born in London in 1950 and can remember seeing such signs in boarding-house windows while I was growing up. My mother was a landlady of one such establishment for a while, but I'm glad to say that she didn't discriminate. Well, she was Irish herself, but she took in anybody; one time, she even turned over my own bedroom to a homeless Kenyan Indian family for a few days.
I sometimes tell young people about the huge amount of casual rascism that ruled in those days, and some of them don't believe me.
ETA: As for the "No travellers" signs, they are still around - I believe there was a court case a couple of years ago that decided that they weren't illegal. Whenever I passed through North Yorkshire, I was always amused by a (now demolished) pub outside Richmond that carried a very large No Tavellers sign - it was called the Traveller's Rest!

Hells "Yes, really, I was around in the days of Johnny Rotten" Granny

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Jay Tea
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I love the irony on that one Hell's Granny - 'Travellers Rest welcomes you - except of course travellers, you can piss off'

The trouble in this trade is that those signs go up for reasons, and then generalisations are made. My Gran used to tell me that in London after the war, Irish immigrants over for jobs in construction etc had a grim reputation for getting laruped, causing damage, scaring away other boarders etc. I happen to know for a fact that 'travellers' these days are known to rack up food bills in establishments and simply refuse to pay...it's a shame that even in modern times it only takes a few bad sorts to set negative stereotypes...

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lancastrian
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Also look at the myth of the "innocent Irish" victims of the Titanic- put forwards so much in the movie.

The image we get in Mr Cameron's film is of poverty stricken but honest and loveable Irish folk who had to suffer the horrors of third class.

The fact of the matter is that most third class passengers weren't from Ireland. Furthermore even life in third class on that ship was pretty good- not to mention expensive.

The point I am making is that there is an endering image that all Irish people were a kind of poverty stricken underclass.
This sterotype is in fact quite wrong- many Irish migrants, like people from any other nation, were affluent and respectable.

For sure, SOME Irish migrants would have been poor, but that equally applies to enlgish, jews, germans etc...

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Jay Tea
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Indeed Lancastrian,Titanic stereotyped the Irish, but wtf doesn't? yet the fact remains that emmigration almost killed the country as a whole, whole communities fleeing because of poverty, an influx of poor that few countries could match...hundreds of thousands poured out of Ireland to seek better times, most did so with a quiet dignity and sorrow.

Also, the majority may well have been poor, but you don't have to be affluent to be respectable [Wink]

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Dara bhur gCara
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Signs saying "No Travellers" do not in fact refer to gypsies, per se. They are forbidding travelling salespeople, who go from pub to pub selling (often stolen and counterfeit) goods. Unfortunately, people in this line of work do tend to come from the Roma community, so it's a moot point whether or not it's discriminatory.

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The Otter of our Discontent
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I've been in a few Irish pubs that have old anti-Irish memoribilia mounted on the walls.

I don't recall ever seeing a NINA sign, but I have seen a few "No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish" signs.

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judical
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I vividly recall seeing a photo of a NINA poster in my junior high history textbook.
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lancastrian
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Yep, I agree Jay Tea Cell, but of course those very poor migrants wouldn't be on the Titanic- it was simply to expensive.

In fact, the majority of the poor Irish migrants didn't go to the USA, they went to England because it was nearer and therefore the boat trip was cheaper.

As for the respectable point I was again refering to sterotypes in movies such as Titanic. It was a very real fact of life that the richer passengers were afforded the most repect. The sterotype would have us believe that all the First Class types were English or America, but some of these very respected people were from Ireland too!

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Pixxxie
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I remember learning about the "No Irish Need Apply" signs in my elementary school history class. Of course, that doesn't mean it's true.
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Hell's Granny
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quote:
Originally posted by Dara:
Signs saying "No Travellers" do not in fact refer to gypsies, per se. They are forbidding travelling salespeople, who go from pub to pub selling (often stolen and counterfeit) goods. Unfortunately, people in this line of work do tend to come from the Roma community, so it's a moot point whether or not it's discriminatory.

Maybe down in London those are the only Travellers you see, but in the rest of the country the term "Travellers" covers anyone from the nomadic community (which includes Irish and Scottish tinkers, Roma Gypsies and New Age travellers), regardless of whether or not they're selling anything. It is discrimination, but hard to prove.

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