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Why historians are fighting about “No Irish Need Apply” signs — and why it matters

UPDATE: After this article was first published, in March 2015, Rebecca Fried published her essay debunking academic claims that "No Irish Need Apply" signs were vanishingly rare. The article has been updated to reflect Ms. Fried's findings and the current controversy.

This image has become a stand-in for an entire narrative about how immigrants are treated in America. It's also the subject of a surprisingly heated academic fight.

No Irish Need Apply

(Jonathan Wiggs/Boston Globe via Getty)

In one corner, arguing that an Irish immigrant in mid-19th-century America was relatively unlikely to run into "No Irish Need Apply" postings, is a tenured but ideologically iconoclastic historian. In the other, arguing that they were a lot more widespread, is a 14-year-old with excellent archival research skills.

There's a reason (beyond academic infighting) that the question of whether the symbolic "No Irish Need Apply" sign was exaggerated — and with it, the scope of anti-Irish discrimination during the first big wave of Irish Catholic immigration to the US — is still being fought over almost 200 years later. That's because of the sign's symbolism. When politicians or others refer to "No Irish Need Apply" signs, here's what they're saying: every new immigrant group that's come to the United States has faced discrimination from natives. But over time, the immigrant group has fought back against discrimination and won, and has assimilated into broader American society — to the point that it becomes hard to imagine they ever would have been oppressed to begin with.

As it was with the Irish in the 19th century, the story implies, so it will be with Latino and Asian immigrants today.

So the controversy over "No Irish Need Apply" signs ask the same questions that have been raised for every single group of immigrants since then: are they really being discriminated against in material ways, like work and housing, or are they just the victims of prejudiced attitudes? And if they react by thinking of themselves as underdogs, are they acknowledging the truth, or making themselves into victims?

What's clear, through the controversy, is that Irish Americans chose to identify with the narrative the sign represents. And it's made them a continued ally for immigrants — both Irish and not — straight through to the 21st century.

The case that No Irish Need Apply was less common than you think

In 2002, historian Richard Jensen published a takedown of "No Irish Need Apply," calling it "a myth of victimization." Jensen looked through newspaper classified ads from the 1850s to the 1920s and found, he wrote, that only about two ads per decade told Irish men not to apply. (It was more common for ads for domestic workers to specify no Irish or, more frequently, no Catholics.) Furthermore, Jensen wrote, "there is no evidence for any printed NINA signs in America, or for their display at places of employment other than private homes."

But that left Jensen with a tricky question to answer: how on earth did "No Irish Need Apply" become part of Irish Americans' collective memory? His alternative theory: because of a song.

Anti-Irish discrimination was rampant in Britain, and a song became popular there in the 1850s called "No Irish Need Apply." The song hopped the pond to America — in at least two different versions. In one version, printed in Philadelphia, the narrator recalls being discriminated against in London — but says now that she's in "the land of the glorious and free," she's sure Americans will be more welcoming to her. In the other version, printed in New York, the narrator sees a "No Irish Need Apply" ad in America — and proceeds to seek out the proprietor and beat him up.

Guess which version became wildly popular.

Jensen believed that in America, it was the song that popularized the phrase — not the other way around.

Were Irish Americans stuck in a "culture of victimhood"?

There's plenty of evidence that "native Americans" considered Irish Catholics to be inferior. (Irish Protestants, on the other hand, didn't come in for the same prejudice — and in fact, many of them joined the nativist Know-Nothing Party in the 1830s to protest the arrival of their Catholic counterparts.) But did that prejudice turn into outright discrimination against Irish immigrants? Or have Irish Americans been holding on to the "myth of victimization"?

In other words: was America in the mid-19th century like some say America is today, with some people saying unpleasant things about other ethnic groups but very little widespread oppression? Or was it like another view of 21st-century America, with systemic racism that has material effects on people's lives?

anti-Irish cartoon

Did anti-Irish attitudes stay on magazine covers, or move into the workplace? (Transcendental Graphics via Getty)

Jensen's in the first camp. As a result, his attitude toward the Irish of the 19th century sounds a bit like conservatives blaming a "culture of victimhood" for the problems facing nonwhites today:

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 to 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.

Other historians think Jensen overstates his case when he says there was no widespread job discrimination against Irish Catholics. And there's suspicion that Jensen has an axe to grind, since his characterization of Irish Americans as self-aggrandizing drama queens sounds a little like some conservative characterizations of other ethnic minorities.

But he's not the only one saying racial discrimination wasn't as big a factor in mid-19th-century Irish-American life as people tend to think. Historians of Irish Americans have turned away from the idea that Irish immigrants were considered "not white" when they came to the US, and became "white" via assimilation (and by oppressing African Americans). In the words of historian Kevin Kenny, the "whiteness" question "obscured more than it clarified." And labor historians have suggested that at least part of what looks like oppression based on ethnicity was in fact oppression based on class: "Irish workers were certainly exploited," in Kenny's words, "but they did not suffer from racism."

The case that NINA notices were everywhere, if you knew where to look for them

Other historians protested that anti-Irish discrimination was widespread, but didn't contest Jensen's findings about NINA signs. A couple of them even corroborated his conclusions. For what it's worth, when I originally wrote this article, I did some follow-up research of my own in the Library of Congress' digitized newspaper database — and found, similar to Jensen, that there weren't any more than two wanted ads per decade that specified "No Irish Need Apply."

But the problem was that the databases being used just weren't complete enough. In spring 2015, Rebecca Fried, a 14-year-old whose father had brought home the article from work, checked out Jensen's claims. She found much more evidence of "No Irish Need Apply" notices than Jensen's article had allowed.

Fried turned up about 50 businesses putting "No Irish Need Apply" in their newspaper ads between 1842 and 1903. The notices were especially popular in New York (which had "No Irish Need Apply" ads for 15 businesses in 1842-1843 alone, and 7 after that) and Boston, which had NINA ads for 9 businesses. Of course, these were also the centers of Irish immigrant settlement at the time. And she found several news reports that mentioned "No Irish Need Apply" signs — the ones that Jensen said there was no evidence to believe ever existed — being hung at workplaces, as well as public accommodations.

So while Jensen's research turned up about 2 ads a decade, Fried's turned out closer to one a year — although that varied a lot depending on where and when you were.

This obviously doesn't cover every newspaper published during the period. But it's hard to tell how to extrapolate it. Databases like the Library of Congress', which really don't have many "No Irish Need Apply" ads, are obviously incomplete — but so are databases that do have them. What's most representative of all newspapers of the time?

There's a pretty spirited academic back-and-forth between Fried and Jensen about Fried's findings, as covered in this article in the Daily Beast. Jensen points out that any given Irish immigrant, on any given day, was unlikely to open a newspaper and see a "No Irish Need Apply" ad  — which may very well still be true. But Fried argues that the point is that they did, in fact, exist — and so it makes sense that they'd become part of how Irish Americans understand their role in American history.

Discrimination was real — but memory has outlasted it

Three things are clearly true. There was obviously widespread prejudice against Irish Catholics during the mid-19th-century wave of immigration to the US, and that prejudice led to actual discrimination in at least some cases (and, probably, fairly often).

The second truth is that Irish Americans have been resisting discrimination for as long as they've been experiencing it. Alongside the want ads requesting "No Irish Need Apply" that Fried found were reports of Irish workers filing libel lawsuits, holding protests, or even going on strike in response to such ads. Those reports are almost as old as the first NINA ads that Fried found. And that's not to mention jokes that both Fried and I found in our research that would be reprinted from one paper to another, using "No Irish Need Apply" as a springboard for humor: one common joke involved an Irishman, with an exaggerated accent, pretending to be French to get around the sign.

That last category included several papers reprinting the lyrics of one version or another of the "No Irish Need Apply" song that Jensen says was so important. And remember, the version of the song that became popular wasn't the one in which coming to America was a happy ending; it was the version in which, even in America, there were bigots who needed to get beaten up. Fighting back was as much a part of Irish American history, as remembered by Irish Americans, as being held down.

But here's the third truth: memory of "No Irish Need Apply" has long outlasted actual anti-Irish discrimination. Many of the people who claimed to have seen NINA signs almost certainly didn't — just like some of the places that claim "George Washington Slept Here." The late Senator Ted Kennedy used to talk about seeing "No Irish Need Apply" signs growing up; Kennedy was not only born in 1932, several decades after anti-Irish prejudice had peaked, but he also grew up in an upper-class neighborhood where (in Jensen's opinion) he was unlikely to run across any stores that might have posted NINA signs. And replica signs, like the one on top of this article, are so popular that maybe they really are more common than real signs ever were.

irish immigrants 1800s

A woodcut of Irish immigrants in the 1880s. (Kean Collection via Getty)

Jensen might argue that this is because of the "myth of victimization" — what other pundits might call a "culture of victimhood." But historians have floated another idea: that Irish Americans, more than any other immigrant group, saw themselves as exiles from their home country, rather than as people who were choosing to come to the US for a better life.

The "exile hypothesis" painted this as a bad thing: Irish immigrants were mostly powerless in the face of historical forces, both in Ireland and in the US. But just as the exile hypothesis was becoming popular, in the mid-1980s, another wave of Irish immigrants were coming to the US — and the reaction to them made it clear there was a substantial upside to Irish Americans continuing to identify with victims.

How the Irish still shape immigration policy

During the 1980s, tens of thousands of Irish immigrants came to the US — many of them coming on student or tourist visas and then staying after those visas expired. Irish Americans welcomed the new unauthorized immigrants — their Irishness mattered more than their legal status. And because Irish Americans had political power, politicians set about to fix the immigration system so it would be easier for Irish immigrants to come the right way.

In 1990, Congress passed an Immigration Act — championed by none other than Senator Ted Kennedy himself. The law created a new visa lottery, which is today called the "diversity visa" — it gives visas to people from countries that don't otherwise send many immigrants to the US. But for the first three years of its existence, the law required that 40 percent of the visas — called "Donnelly visas" — needed to go to Irish immigrants. Furthermore, an additional temporary program gave "Morrison visas" to Irish immigrants for the three years after the law passed. (Both visas were named after the Irish-American members of Congress who had championed them.) Between the two visas, most of the unauthorized Irish immigrants in the US were able to achieve legal status.

legalize the irish

Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) during a 2006 "legalize the Irish" rally. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ-Roll Call)

Today, the Irish aren't among the top 25 countries for unauthorized immigrants living in the US. (The only European country that cracks the top 25 is Poland.) But Irish Americans and Irish immigrants maintain an outsize presence in arguing for immigration reform to give legal status and citizenship to unauthorized immigrants. (The Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform has been a presence in New England and Washington for nearly a decade, since the beginning of the current reform fight.) And even the Irish government praised President Barack Obama for his executive actions last November, allowing millions of unauthorized immigrants to apply for protection from deportation and work permits.

Ostensibly, groups like the Irish Lobby are fighting on behalf of the 50,000 unauthorized Irish immigrants. But they're putting in more effort than, say, Polish groups, despite having less of a direct stake in the outcome of reform. And Irish-American politicians continue to draw a direct line from the memory (founded or not) of "No Irish Need Apply" signs from 150 years ago to the unauthorized immigrants in the shadows today.

Here's another version of the "No Irish Need Apply" song. In this version, the narrator takes a deep breath and decides not to beat up the proprietor. Instead, he educates him: "Your ancestors came over here like me, to try to make a living in this land of liberty." That's the role the Irish play in today's immigration debate — except now, they are both the "ancestors" and the new immigrants trying to make good.

CORRECTION: This article misidentified Michael Fried, Rebecca's father, as a history professor. He isn't.

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