I read something that surprised me this morning, in a book review in The Wall Street Journal. As is fairly typical in opinion pieces in the Journal, the reviewer repeatedly expressed disdain for the author of a book about Irish politics in Boston whenever he failed to be insufficiently conservative (praising him for not dwelling on the Kennedys, castigating him for insufficiently respecting the Southies who fought busing for integration). But I was startled by this revelation:
Unfortunately, Mr. O’Neill has produced a rather straightforward recapitulation of Irish politics in the Hub, sticking to the well-established narrative of mustache-twisting Brahmins (or “Yankee overlords,” in Mr. O’Neill’s phrasing) doing battle against spirited, rascally Irish politicians. Indeed, “Rogues and Redeemers” doesn’t so much upend myths as reinforce them. In Irish America, tales of rampant employment discrimination by Yankee businessmen, who posted signs warning “No Irish need apply” are accepted as gospel. Such anti-Irish bias, writes Mr. O’Neill, was “commonly found in newspapers” and became “so commonplace that it soon had an acronym: NINA.”
But according to historian Richard Jensen, there is almost no proof to support the claim that NINA was a common hiring policy in America. Mr. Jensen reported in the Journal of Social History in 2002 that “the overwhelming evidence is that such signs never existed” and “evidence from the job market shows no significant discrimination against the Irish.” The tale has been so thoroughly discredited that, in 2010, the humor magazine Cracked ranked it No. 2 on a list of “6 Ridiculous History Myths (You Probably Think Are True).” Mr. O’Neill doesn’t inspire confidence by faithfully accepting NINA as fact…
I spent a few moments just now checking to see to what extent it is true that the NINA phenomenon is a “myth” of victimization. What I found kept directing me to the aforementioned Mr. Jensen, whose article on the subject is much cited.
But even Jensen documents that some (although not many) ads saying “No Irish Need Apply” appeared in American newspapers during the period. And no one disputes that such prejudice against the Irish was common in Britain; the only debate has to do with the extent of the practice in this country.
From the Jensen article:
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 the Chicago 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 5 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…
Make of this what you will.
Personally, I think it unlikely that NO such signs existed. Given what we can see even today of nativist sentiment, and knowing the nation’s history of suspicion and even hostility toward Catholics, it seems almost certain that back in a day when the “n-word” invited no social ostracism, such alienation toward an outside group would have been expressed quite openly and without embarrassment. But I’m just extrapolating from known facts here. Jensen is right — neither I nor anyone else can produce physical evidence of such signs at worksites.
I suspect that the truth lies somewhere between the utter dismissal of the reviewer, and the deep resentment of alleged widespread practices that runs through the history of Southie politics.