Beware of Evidence That You Really, Really Wanted to Find

I was oddly glad to learn that "No Irish" ads were widespread. That feeling is a warning sign.

Ellis Island. The adventure begins.

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"No Irish Need Apply." The signs are legendary in the collective memory of Irish Americans. Our ancestors were warned away from the jobs that were open only to "real Americans," not to the Papist hordes streaming across the Atlantic, with their drinking and their brawling and their unsavory politicking. It is the epigraphic summation of a long war with America's WASP elite, one that may now be forgotten by the Anglo Protestants who waged it, but not by the great-great-grandchildren of Erin.

I call it legendary. Historian Richard Jensen actually called it a myth.

Jensen, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, wrote a long article in 2002, in which he argued that these advertisements were rare, and when they were found, applied almost exclusively to women, who disproportionately worked as domestics. Jensen searched the digital archives of a number of newspapers, and found that "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."

This is a bit of a blow to the pride of Irish Americans, who do love a good martyrdom. Something in me rebelled when I saw this article, but as an empirical matter, there's no reason it couldn't be true. I filed it away under "History, maybe not quite as bad as you thought, though still quite bad" and moved on to contemplating the perfidy of Oliver Cromwell.

Then, the other day, another article caught my eye. It seems that Rebecca Fried, a high school student from the Sidwell Friends school in Washington, has done a more thorough search of newspaper archives, made possible by advances in digitizing archives since Professor Jensen did his work. Her results have been published in the Oxford Press Journal of Social History, the same place where the original paper was published. And she found lots of examples of both "No Irish Need Apply" advertisements and newspaper accounts of "No Irish" signs, even though the available archives still cover only a small fraction of the thousands of papers in which such ads and accounts might have appeared. 

It's a very good paper, and having looked at an advance copy, I heartily recommend that you read it when the next issue of the journal comes out. There are a lot of interesting insights, and the most galling and surprising of them was that these signs were occasionally posted by Irish Americans themselves, which just goes to show that history is always more complicated than you think.

As I read about these notices, I wondered: Why was I so glad to read that my ancestors had, in fact, faced nasty discrimination? It's a reaction that needs scrutiny. It's an echo of what happens when activists go looking for outrages, and cling to the most outrageous accounts -- for example, when feminists fought so hard to believe the brutal rape account that Rolling Stone published last year. Why would you want to believe that things are even more terrible than you previously thought?

The answer I got is that I already know things were pretty terrible. Relatives of mine, still living, have experienced anti-Catholic slurs, said utterly without shame by people who had grown up in a world where a distaste for Catholics was simply how all right-thinking people felt. (And not because of their opposition to gay marriage, either.) I myself, while working as a hotel maid, had an elderly woman merrily call me by the wrong name, because, as she explained to her bemused friends, they had always changed the name of their servants, and "The Irish don't care about things like that." I know of someone who was told in midcentury that he might as well go ahead and resign his position as an engineer, because a Catholic "ethnic" was never going to get promoted. This was in prosperous postwar America, not the "bad old days" of the 19th century.

The long war between America's Protestant elite and its great masses of Catholic immigrants, Irish and otherwise, was real, and was really long. It still echoes today; a number of current political currents can be seen as an outgrowth of battles that started between "progressive" and (often Irish dominated) "machine" politics, way back in the 19th century.

The "No Irish" signs did not need to be widespread to confirm a deep and widely accepted bias. If you came across a society where it was legal to post "No blacks or Latinos" in job advertisements, and saw only a few dozen of them per year, you wouldn't think, "Oh, well, I guess racism is just a small problem here." You'd know that if even a small number of people were willing to be explicit, their comfort with doing so probably signaled a much broader social problem: the much larger number of jobs for which you needn't apply, because you weren't going to be hired, even if there was no "No Irish" sign.

Still, we cling to the evidence of these signs because it is evidence of the bias we know was real. That drive for validation can lead us astray, as it did in the Rolling Stone case: Activists against campus rape so badly wanted a crystal clear, completely uncontestable case, because if something so blatantly awful can happen and go unpunished, people can't deny that campuses have a glaring problem with rape. When we're trying to demonstrate that a problem exists, we always need to recognize that hunger for confirmation, and be more selective about which cases we latch onto.

Probably "No Irish" ads and signs never loomed quite so large in real life as they still do in the imaginations of many Irish Americans. But Fried's article indicates that they still loomed quite large indeed.

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