‘No Irish Need Apply’

A FEATURE by DIANNE HALL

This is the text of a talk given to the Melbourne Irish Studies Seminar series on 4 April 2017

No Irish

‘No Irish Need Apply’: These words were written on signs and added to employment ads in newspapers throughout the nineteenth century in England, the United States and Australia. Irish migrants to England in the 1950s and 1960s saw signs ‘No Irish, No Blacks and No Dogs’ when looking for accommodation. In case we think that these sentiments have completely disappeared in modern Australia, in 2012 during the mining boom in Perth, a builder put an advertisement for a bricklayer in the free online paper Gumtree, specifying ‘No Irish’. When challenged about it, the response of the builder was very similar to that of many employers from a century or more earlier, he said that the Irish were not reliable, they exaggerated their experience and he just did not want to hire them (Daily Telegraph, 13 March 2012).

The phrase ‘No Irish need apply’ as a result entered common parlance in political debates about immigration and local elections in United States, England and Australia. Yet there has been some academic controversy about the phrase and its meaning over recent years. In 2002 a prominent social and labour historian Richard Jensen published his analysis in the Journal of Social History (2002) of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ (NINA) signs and ads. He argued that although many Irish Americans believed that they had seen or heard about NINA signs and ads their widespread existence was a myth and in fact there were no verifiable signs and few in newspapers. He did concede that they may have been some hand-written ones for female domestic servants which he seems to discount from his analysis. The core of his argument is that he could find only one verifiable NINA sign for a male employee, he bases this on the fact that there were no newspaper reports about them. He then examined quite large data set of ads from a couple of US newspapers and argued that there were only ever a handful of newspaper ads over many decades, meaning that this wording was not significant in explaining Irish lack of social advancement.

Jensen based his analysis of newspapers on early digitalisation projects. Fast forward 15 years, there are now many more newspapers digitalised, so we can test his findings. Donald MacRaild used a much bigger data set of over 50 digitalised nineteenth-century English newspapers in his analysis which was published in 2013.  He argues in Labour History Review (2013) that there were indeed many English newspaper employment ads that used the term ‘No Irish Need Apply’ and related terms such as ‘Protestant only’, and that the majority of them were for domestic servants.In 2015, a US high school student, Rebecca Fried, did a search of the larger data sets then available for the United States newspapers which was published in the Journal of Social History (2016). She found that there were in fact significant numbers of NINA ads, even following the same parameters as Jensen – counting only male workers. One of her more convincing arguments is that many ads were only found in one newspaper that was aimed at working class readers and that has only been digitalised in a rather obscure amateur site so not in the main US databases of newspapers. She suggests that since these sorts of newspapers have not been routinely digitalised it is only possible to make under-estimates of the number of ads that did appear.  There were obviously considerable strata of these advertisements in newspapers in UK and US as well as commentary and other popular culture that referred to them, particularly the song ‘No Irish Need Apply’. This song was originally performed in Britain by Kathleen O’Neill from about 1861, and was in the voice of an Irish servant girl, it was rewritten by John F. Poole in the United States in 1862.  This song was available for purchase in Sydney the same year it appeared in Philadelphia, 1862 (Sydney Morning Herald, 14 June 1862).

Argus (Melbourne), 19 November 1855

So, what about the use of the phrase “No Irish Need Apply” in Australia?

It certainly seemed to Australian colonists that it was commonly used in mid-nineteenth century employment ads. In 1857, an early issue of Melbourne Punch stated ‘No Irish Need Apply….  is a pretty constant addendum to advertisements for servants of various kinds. But was this just a perception?

In order to test this for the Australian context, Elizabeth Malcolm and I used the Trove database of digitalised newspapers  to search for the term ‘No Irish Need Apply’ and then the related terms ‘Protestant only’ and ‘English only/preferred’. Our results are, of course, not definitive. For a start, not all newspapers are searchable. Trove estimated that about 7,700 newspaper titles have appeared and of these only about 1000 have been digitalised. Also, while the search engine is very sophisticated, if the original scan is hard to read then search terms do not show up. From long experience using Trove, it is the small print, squashed columns of employment ads that are least likely to be correctly read by the software. This means that our results must be an underestimation of employment ads in newspapers.  We also need to bear in mind that newspaper ads were only one way that people found out about employment vacancies during the nineteenth century. Other avenues of contact between employers and employees were as or more important, these included signs in windows; labour hire agencies; personal recruitment through word of mouth or through work gangs. None of these will show up more than indirectly in newspaper advertisements.

Given all those caveats, we found about 80 employment ads that used the term ‘No Irish need apply’ or ‘No Irish’ in the Trove database. The latest was 1882 and the earliest was 1832, they were all concentrated in the eastern colonies and most were in the major metropolitan newspapers, even though we searched the regional papers as well. These ads were most commonly seeking domestic servants, so mostly women, but there were some for many of the male low skilled jobs. Overall therefore there were not many that directly stated ‘No Irish’, however we need to supplement these ads with over 10,000 ads appearing between 1820s until 1920 that state ‘Protestant only’/ ‘English only’ or ‘English or Scotch preferred’. When we analysed these ads in 10 year slices, we found that there was a peak period for specifying ‘English only/preferred’ in the 1860s and for ‘Protestant only/preferred’: it was 1920.

The ‘No Irish Need Apply’ ads, and the accompanying ‘English/Protestant preferred’ ads were not added to the majority of employment ads in the Australian colonies. However, they appeared frequently enough to ensure that Irish Catholics knew that there were some employers who would not consider employing them. There were also of course employers who discriminated against Irish employees once they were employed. This does not come up in the newspapers often and when it did the Irish servants had general social and legal support. In 1870 for instance a squatting family from Deniliquin hired a married couple to work on their property. On their first morning there, the servant, Mrs O’Brien, met with her employer, Mrs Turnbull, who reportedly said ‘She did not think she was going to have any “dirty Irish” there and called Mrs O’Brien a vagrant.’ Mrs O’Brien after a few days of this walked off the property and over the 17 miles to the nearest town. She and her husband were then sued for breaking their contract. This was dismissed by the magistrate and the couple won a separate action against the Turnbulls.

Although the exact wording ‘No Irish Need Apply’ was not common in employment ads in the nineteenth century and not found in the twentieth century, it became a well-known catch phrase for anti-Irish discrimination.  It is because the label was so well known both in Australia and throughout the English-speaking Irish diaspora, that it became a way of expressing all the disappointments of discrimination in other areas of public life, such as political debates on immigration policy and politics. It was used in jokes, songs, political speeches, letters to newspapers throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, leaving traces that were still evidence today. As well as the song “No Irish Need Apply” which was sold in Sydney and Melbourne, there was a short play with the same title, described as an original comedietta written by Samuel Hannaford and performed by the Phillips family, and played in theatres around Hobart in the 1860s featuring Irish songs which received a good response from audience (The Mercury, 5 May 1869).

The NINA phrase was also used to try and damage commercial or political reputations in different parts of the colonies between 1840 and 1870. There are many examples, such as when the Brisbane Courier carried an ad for a domestic servant with ‘No Irish need apply’ added in March 1864. James Swan who lived at the address given in the ad,  argued it was a malicious ad, sending a letter to the editor stating that he had received a threatening letter, purportedly from an irate Irishman on the basis of this ad. (Courier 3 March 1864; 11 March 1864). While in Bendigo amid the rough and tumble of a council election in 1870, candidate John Buckley accused his political rivals of circulating a rumour that he had once placed a ‘No Irish need apply’ ad. (Bendigo Advertiser, 4 August 1870).

The use of the term in political commentary to discuss anti-Irish discrimination started early in the Australian colonies, with articles from Hobart from the 1840s using it to argue that the Irish were being excluded particularly from political influence. The phrase was in such common use that was short-hard to describe and often ridicule restrictions on Irish immigration, in both the Catholic and mainstream press. (The Argus, 4 July 1849, p. 2, Freeman’s Journal, 8 August 1857, p. 3) During stormy debates about assisted migration to South Australia in the early 1860s, there were many letters to the newspapers complaining about suspension of the assistance for Irish migrants. In 1866 one letter writer noted that he had been trying to arrange assisted passage for a relative but ‘to each successive application I have been invariably met with the reply that Irish immigration is suspended; or in other words, that  “No Irish need apply.” ‘ (South Australian Register 8 Feb 1866). Irish Australian Catholic commentators and political writers used the phrase liberally when they needed to emphasise what they saw as overt discrimination in any field. In 1899, the Sydney Catholic Press reported Cardinal Moran’s speech where he listed the numbers of Protestant men who held high office in the colony – judges, senior public servants, the majority of members of parliament, editors of major newspapers, finishing with ‘We are heavily taxed, yet we are excluded from the Legislature and all the big State positions. We support public companies, and yet when there is a vacancy worth filling “No Irish need apply.” ‘(Catholic Press, 22 April 1899).

By the 1880 use of NINA in jokes or as short-hand references in political debates probably contributed to the decline of its popularity in advertising as it was losing its value as a way of winnowing out potential employees. This happened at the same time as the Irish-born working population was also declining and their Australian-born children and grandchildren were entering the workforce. For all the desire of some employers to avoid employing them, overall Irish Australians did find work although often with some difficulty. After the 1880s the desire to avoid employing Irish-Australian Catholics was expressed in terms of religion rather than ethnicity.

Dianne Hall

Dianne Hall teaches and researches Irish and Irish-Australian history at Victoria University, Melbourne. With Professor Elizabeth Malcolm, she is writing a new history of the Irish in Australia.

One thought on “‘No Irish Need Apply’

  1. I heard Alistair Cooke in his Letter from America radio series say that when he first arrived in US he saw signs everywhere saying NINA and he didn’t know what it meant….then he found out.
    Great article. thanks.

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