No Irish Need Apply: A Song of Discrimination
Each year, millions of migrants leave their home countries in hopes of escaping war, natural disaster and other sources of internal instability. In the case of the 19th century Irish immigrants, the cause of their journey was a lack of basic sustenance. During the Irish Potato Famine from 1846-1850, millions of Irish were left starving, unable to grow or consume potatoes—their main source of food and nourishment. As a result of widespread starvation and infection with cholera and typhus, large numbers of Irish peasants and workers left Ireland in search of new opportunities in England and the United States. Widespread migration and death caused Ireland’s population to fall from 8.4 to 6.6 million people between 1844 and 1851.
Though they left Ireland in hopes of finding a life better than the one they had left behind, upon arriving in these new countries, the Irish were met with entirely new challenges. By the time 1861 rolled around, Irish-born immigrants made up nearly 3% of the population of England and Wales. And though they made up only a small portion of the population, the Irish were often singled out for a number of discriminatory practices. As described by 19th century British writer Anthony Trollope, “there is a strong feeling against things Irish it is impossible to deny. Irish servants need not apply; Irish acquaintances are treated with limited confidence; Irish cousins are regarded as being decidedly dangerous; and Irish stories are not popular with the bookseller.” Often depicted as monstrous beings or apes in popular satirical cartoons, the Irish were not seen as welcome members to English society. Irish immigrants were seen as lazy, drunk, anarchistic criminals whose sole purpose in life was to steal the jobs of English workers. In comes as no surprise then that English employers were not very welcoming of Irish workers.
As discussed in the lyrics of the song “No Irish Need Apply,” the anti-Irish sentiment that permeated English society also extended itself into the labor sphere. The song describes the struggles of an immigrant Irish maid who is residing in England but is continually turned away from employment simply because she is of Irish origins. English employers in the mid-1800’s, especially those of higher-paying jobs, would often not even meet with Irish job applicants upon the discovery of their origins. The narrator indicates her frustration at having to follow English laws and practices, but not being allowed to fully participate in society saying, “They rule us, yet we may not earn a living in their land.” She goes on to give various examples of various times that the Irish have helped the British, both socially and on the battle field. The narrator cites the “Siege of Sebastopol” in which the Irish army helped the British allies defeat the Russians as a part of the Crimean War, as well as the “Irish hospitality” that the Irish grant to English citizens who arrive on their shores, in order to the illustrate the backwards logic in the discriminatory practices of the British.
The last stanza of the song describes the maid’s struggles in coming to America, a place of similar discrimination, and finding the same problems that she encountered in England. "Lyricist" Kathleen O’Neill satirizes the description of the US as the land of the "Glorious and Free” in that the US pretended to be open to liberty, while they also managed to suppress the economic plight of Irish immigrants. Performer and supposed lyricist of the song Kathleen O'Neil, would have identified more with the struggles of Irish immigrants in America. Born in the United States around 1852 to Irish immigrant parents in New York, Kathleen witnessed firsthand the immigrant discrimination that filled the various ethnic neighborhoods of major cities in the US. Though this experience would have served as perfect motivation for the song’s lyrics, Kathleen was only 10 years old at the time of the song’s publishing. Serving as a protégée to variety showman Tony Pastor, it is suspected that the lyrics to “No Irish Need Apply” were brought over from England and falsely credited to Ms. O’Neill due to a lack of copyright laws at the time.
There exists some debate surrounding the actual existence of signs proclaiming “No Irish Need Apply” that were hung on various places of employment throughout England and the United States. However it is generally agreed upon that whether written or not, there was a definitive anti-Irish discrimination in the labor practices of 19th century employers.
Document Item Type Metadata
- Date Added
- October 29, 2013
- Item Type
- discrimination, immigrant labor, irish immigrants
- Kathleen O'Neil , “No Irish Need Apply: A Song of Discrimination ,” Borders, accessed December 14, 2018, https://apps.cndls.georgetown.edu/projects/borders/items/show/86.
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