“No Irish Need Apply”« Back to Articles
Terence James Patrick Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center
In the early half of the 19th C., those words –or the acronym NINA–were commonly posted in places of potential employment in America. For people of the time with names like the one under this title, it meant, “Don’t even bother to ask! If you are from that unfortunate island off the west coast of blessed England, we are not interested in employing you.” The Irish were scorned for many reasons. In a predominantly Protestant country, they were Catholic, and many Americans saw the “Romish pope” as a sinister force in the world. More than that, they were the least respected of any people of the British Isles. True British might look down their nose at the Scots, the Welsh, or the Cornish; but all of them felt themselves well above the Irish. Oppressed, exploited, often starving, the Irish were typically blamed for their poverty—pretty much the same way as people today blame our underclass citizens for the conditions they did not choose for themselves.
If there were some sociometric gauge for assessing rank, the Irish would have been rated slightly above those of African descent, but only slightly. Sadly but predictably, those two demographic groups did not become allies but rather competitors for the lowest paying jobs offered by the Protestant middle and upper classes. In this region clashes took place between the two groups. In a letter to William Still, 11/5/1857, Thomas Garrett recounts that one party of fugitives, “were attacked with clubs by several Irishmen, and one was shot in the forehead,” but survived. When UGRR stationmaster Dr. Bartholomew Fussell allegedly said that Black people would make better citizens than the Irish would, he was assaulted by angry workers from Hagley Powder Works (one of the few places Irish were permitted to work).
If Fussell made the statement, it was probably in reference to a widespread stereotype about Irish immigrants—that they were excessive drinkers and therefore unreliable. Others of that time, including Thoreau in Walden, referred to the Irish so; later writers, such as Eugene O’Neill, did little to dispel this image.
However, on one occasion, Thomas Garret used the stereotype to advantage for those seeking freedom. According to Priscilla Thompson’s 1986 article on Garrett for Delaware History, slave hunters often watched Market Street Bridge over the Christina River (pictured below);and on one occasion it was obviously guarded by such folks. Garrett employed his friend Patrick Holland and several of Holland’s fellow Irishmen to take a wagon filled with picnic gear across the bridge south. They were in rowdy spirits heading out, and many hours later returned, “apparently” drunken. The guards, remembering them, just let them pass. This time, however, the party-goers had concealed beneath their blankets a family of fugitives. Garrett then paid the Holland to convey the freedom-seekers to their next station.
Sometimes, Irish could apply—and be gratefully hired.