I was recently engaged to do a presentation for the Daughters of the American Revolution. The talk was bout a tragic shipwreck off Asbury Park, November 13, 1854. Hundreds of German immigrants, seeking a better life were killed in the frigid waters. The New York Times had expansive coverage of the tragedy. As I was combing the Times for firsthand information of the wreck, I began to peruse the classified advertisements of November 1854, and there it was: a NINA:
Girl wanted-in small private family, 14 or 15 years old, either American or German, to take care of a young child. She must have good references. Wages $3 a month. NO Irish Need Apply. Call at No.89 McDougal-St.
To most, NINA, is a woman’s name. To historians, archaeologists, and Irish American families, it has a different connotation. The tern NINA was colloquial slang of the period and translated to “NO IRISH NEED APPLY”. After reading this ad, I searched for others. Not an exhaustive search, mind you, but I discovered another 27 advertisements that, using a variety of verbiage, made it clear that Irish Catholics should look elsewhere for employment. Some of the wording is subtle, like: “Nurse Wanted to take care of three children, A Protestant woman (Scotch Preferred) …” still others were brutally direct: “NO IRISH”.
Despite the ethnicity of my last name, I am of Irish decent. My double great grandfather, William Grady, arrived in the United States, from Schull in County Cork, in 1866. He met Elizabeth Foley shipboard. Two years later they were married and moved into an apartment in Manhattan. He became a handyman; they had a family. He was said to be a hard worker and a man of integrity and strength. I can not put myself in his mind. I can only think of how I would feel were I to come across Help Wanted classified ads that made it clear that I was thought to be “undesirable” because of my ethnicity and not my skill level. I would probably start out angry, then sad, then really depressed. (Especially because of the volume of NINA ads.) Imagine walking along a street, looking for work, and seeing help wanted signs and under them the hate filled words “NO Irish Need Apply”. It would be incredibly demoralizing.
But William was a man of different time. He, like other Irish Americans of his era, saw himself as an exile from his home country, rather than someone choosing to come to the US for a better life. So, he and others fought hard so that future generations of the family would not be subjugated to the same discrimination. When they came upon NINA signs, ads, etc., there were civil libel suits, strikes, protests and boycotts. The Irish were used to a hard scrabble existence under the rule of various invaders. They were, through that experience, used to fighting back as the underdog.
Today, there are reports of acts of violence against Asian communities across the country. There were six Asian women shot to death in Atlanta yesterday. People of Color are still, more than 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, discriminated against. Immigrants are treated as something other than human beings; university educated people are relegated to jobs that pay little, and for which they are overqualified. A fellow Irishman, in Congress, rails against the “crisis” at the border with rhetoric that should be used for hardened criminals and terrorists, rather than unaccompanied children seeking asylum. In America, we forget the lessons of history quickly, only to relive them generation after generation.
In a scene from a popular 1960’s television show, the antagonist, who has been in suspended animation for 200 years, is being interviewed by the captain of the starship that found and revived him. At one point, the antagonist, from an outsider’s view, quips: “In fact, I am surprised how little improvement there has been in human evolution. Oh, there has been technical advancement, but how little man himself has changed.”
This fictional television encounter rings true in 2021. The New York Times classified advertisements from 1854 echo the same sentiment that we see in abundance today. Replace “Irish” with Black, Latino, Muslim, Asian, etc. We are suspicious of those people who, like our own ancestors, come to the shores of America seeking a better way of life, without fear of persecution, for their families. We tend to make life miserable for those who look or sound different than us. We denigrate beliefs that are different, political ideology that is different from our own. We do not tolerate those religions that are not our own. That is not my America.
Think about how you would feel if the shoe was on the other foot. You are looking for work and all the jobs to which you would like to apply have notations stating, “NO________ Need Apply”. How do you go home and answer the question from your kids “How was your day? Did you get the job?”
Unless we count ourselves amongst Native American lineage, we are all children of the Diaspora. Our families are immigrant families. This Saint Patrick’s Day let’s think about how we treat others that are new to our country, with different ways of speaking and different ideals and religions. Let’s treat our immigrant brothers and siters, and people of color, far better than the ways in which our families were treated when they arrived in America, long ago.
Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona do chách. (Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to all.)