Anti-Irish sentiment in the United States previously involved depictions of Irish migrants as non-human primates. While historians have debated the prevalence of contemporaneous "No Irish Need Apply" signs, such a sentiment was widely discussed, with Irish Americans referencing it after 1860. For the sake of this question, I take the decline in both of these phenomena as suggestive of a decline in US anti-Irish sentiment.

Sources such as Ignatiev 1995 argue Irish migrants to the United States were initially perceived as non-white, and that the subsequent classification of Irish Americans as white and the decline in anti-Irish sentiment was largely driven by Irish alignment with anti-black racism, beginning with support for the Democratic Party in the antebellum North. The idea that Irish Americans have only recently been considered white is often cited, at least by non-historians, as an example of how whiteness is a social construct.

However, Arnesen 2001 argues such analyses conflate race with economic status and ignore the legal rights provisioned to Irish immigrants c. 1830, and concludes a former classification of Irish people as not white is a product of historical revisionism.

Is a changing definition of whiteness part of the explanation for anti-Irish sentiment's decline in the US? Is anti-black racism among Irish Americans part of the explanation for said decline or such a change in definition? What other factors were integral to the decline in anti-Irish sentiment?

  • It declined when more visually obviously different groups began arriving in large numbers. – Semaphore Dec 18 '18 at 11:15
  • @Semaphore Such as the yellow peril? If that's the explanation, was it mediated by the reactions of the Irish, other white groups or a combination? – J.G. Dec 18 '18 at 11:29
  • I was observing that anti-Irish sentiments seems to have faded out around the same time the Great Migration, which brought Southern blacks into the North, was starting. I'm sure the explanation is more complex and multifaceted than that, though. – Semaphore Dec 18 '18 at 12:14
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    To some extent, it wasn't so much the "Irish peril" as the "Catholic peril". After Catholicism became more socially acceptable (c.f. JFK), anti-Irish prejudice declined. Anti-Catholicism was a big thing in 1800's US, but was mostly dead by WW2. – Robert Columbia Dec 19 '18 at 3:05
  • The multiple, distinct hypothesis advanced in these comments suggest that the question is more subtle and more important than I initially perceived. Thank you and upvote. (And remember, I hate questions about race/ethnicity; it is very rare for me to upvote a question like this). – Mark C. Wallace yesterday

I'll make two preliminary points before addressing the question directly. First, there isn't anything terribly unique about Irish-Americans as compared to white ethnics in general, and so my answer will be on that level applicable to Jews, Italians, etc. Second, I think it is easy to answer this question if we approach economic class and social status (of which race is but one particular form) as distinct but inter-related. In other words, having a higher social status (including being seen as partially or fully white) can help a group move up economically, but also vice-versa; white ethnics were seen as less-than-white in part because they were poor.

Getting in to the historical substance, I would first say that from a strictly formal-legal perspective, the Irish and other white ethnics were always white. Yang and Koshy (2016), "The 'Becoming White Thesis' Revisited" lays this out very clearly. But that in itself doesn't disprove the Ignatiev thesis at all. In terms of social prestige, and the degree of 'whiteness' of the Irish and other ethnics was certainly questioned through much of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries. Just one striking visual example of this comes from H. Strickland Constable (1899) Ireland from One or Two Neglected Points of View which argued that the "Irish Iberian" race was intermediate in evolutionary development between the "Anglo-Teutonic" and the "Negro".

from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scientific_racism_irish.jpg

Now finally to get to directly addressing the headline question of what changed. The most important historical turning point for white ethnics when their social and economic conditions changed rapidly was the early post-war boom period into the early 1960s. Government programs like the GI Bill, the interstate highway system and so on allowed and encouraged upwardly mobile white ethnics to move to the suburbs and accumulate wealth in the form of home ownership. Blacks and Latinos were excluded from this to a great degree by racial discrimination, notably in the form of formal redlining and restrictive covenants. The more that white ethnics became associated with the middle class suburbs, the more completely their former racialization as "not-fully-white" began to fade. Meanwhile this "white flight" led to disinvestment in the inner cities, reinforcing a growing association between black/brown people and unprecedented levels of urban blight, crime and poverty.

In sum, I don't think it's tenable to argue that "a changing definition of whiteness [is] part of the explanation for anti-Irish sentiment's decline", but rather, the exact reverse. The intermediate position of white ethnics in a status hierarchy defined by race allowed them to move up economically in the changing post-war economy. Anti-black racism may have had a part in maintaining that intermediate position back through the ante-bellum period, but much more importantly, it was part of the basis of their cultural assimilation and economic upward mobility after World War II. Economic change (specifically the growth of a suburban middle class, increasingly educated and white-collar) made the older racial denigration of white ethnics obsolete.

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    I think you omit an important, and quite obvious, factor. which is (simplistically) the melting pot effect. It's quite easy to be prejudiced against first-generation immigrants of any nationality: they talk funny, they have different customs, maybe they even look different. But after a generation or two - the time varying on how strongly the new generations hold to "their" culture - they become Americanized, and are your kids' spouses. – jamesqf Jul 4 at 4:42
  • @jamesqf Cultural assimilation is not an explanation so much as a description of what is being explained. Urban working class ethnic whites still talk funny, etc. even though they are native born. Likewise, African americans are native born and fully American but still racialized. – Brian Z Jul 4 at 12:08
  • I don't have much direct experience with urban working class (or urban anything, really), but isn't the "talk funny" a direct measure of how much particular individuals have NOT culturally assimilated? Same for many African Americans, though the process was much slowed by past racial laws. Those who don't get assimilated are those who cling to the non-mainstream culture. – jamesqf Jul 4 at 17:13
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    My point is basically that the only way anyone assimilates into middle class culture is by actually becoming middle class. People don't irrationally choose to "cling" to a culture for no reason, they adopt the culture of the community that they are materially part of. Economic and political realities do a lot to determine that. – Brian Z Jul 5 at 11:11
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    If you happen to be white, your anecdote is precisely illustrative of what I am saying. You were materially rewarded for discarding your culture. This is what happened to white ethnics in the US on a massive scale during the post-war boom. Blacks tried as hard as anyone to do the same but were prevented from doing so. – Brian Z Jul 6 at 14:35

You will usually find any bad sentiment towards any peoples comes from ancient atrocity propaganda campaigns, designed to justify invasions.

Atrocity propaganda

Atrocity propaganda

Atrocity propaganda is the spreading of information about the crimes committed by an enemy, which can be factual, but often includes or features deliberate fabrications or exaggerations. This can involve photographs, videos, illustrations, interviews, and other forms of information presentation or reporting.

The inherently violent nature of war means that exaggeration and invention of atrocities often becomes the main staple of propaganda.1 Patriotism is often not enough to make people hate the enemy, and propaganda is also necessary.2 "So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations", wrote Harold Lasswell, "that every war must appear to be a war of defense against a menacing, murderous aggressor. There must be no ambiguity about who [sic] the public is to hate."3 Human testimony is deemed unreliable even in ordinary circumstances, but in wartime, it can be further muddled by bias, sentiment, and misguided patriotism, becoming of no value whatsoever in establishing the truth.

And Hibernophobia can be traced all the way back to Greek geographer Strabo.



except that its inhabitants are more savage than the Britons, since they are man-eaters as well as heavy eaters, and since, further, they count it an honorable thing, when their fathers die, to devour them, and openly to have intercourse, not only with the other women, but also with their mothers and sisters; but I am saying this only with the understanding that I have no trustworthy witnesses for it; and yet, as for the matter of man-eating, that is said to be a custom of the Scythians also, and, in cases of necessity forced by sieges, the Celti, the Iberians, and several other peoples are said to have practiced it."

In 1155, the Pope had to justify giving Henry II permission to invade Ireland, and he did so by calling the Irish rude and barbaric, filthy people.

History of Hibernophobia


In 1155, Pope Adrian IV issued the papal bull called Laudabiliter, that gave Henry permission to conquer Ireland as a means of strengthening the Papacy's control over the Irish Church.[5] Pope Adrian called the Irish a "rude and barbarous" nation. Thus, the Norman invasion of Ireland began in 1169 with the backing of the Papacy. Pope Alexander III, who was Pope at the time of the invasion, ratified the Laudabiliter and gave Henry dominion over Ireland. He likewise called the Irish a "barbarous nation" with "filthy practices".

According to Gerald of Wales

They use their fields mostly for pasture. Little is cultivated and even less is sown. The problem here is not the quality of the soil but rather the lack of industry on the part of those who should cultivate it. This laziness means that the different types of minerals with which hidden veins of the earth are full are neither mined nor exploited in any way. They do not devote themselves to the manufacture of flax or wool, nor to the practice of any mechanical or mercantile act. Dedicated only to leisure and laziness, this is a truly barbarous people. They depend on animals for their livelihood and they live like animals.[7]

According to William of Malmesbury and William of Newburgh.

"This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice. They indulge in incest, for example in marrying – or rather debauching – the wives of their dead brothers". Even earlier than this Archbishop Anselm accused the Irish of wife swapping, "exchanging their wives as freely as other men exchange their horses".

Sir Henry Sidney

in the words of Sir Henry Sidney, twice Lord Deputy of Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth I, and in those of Edmund Tremayne, his secretary. In Tremayne's view the Irish "commit whoredom, hold no wedlock, ravish, steal and commit all abomination without scruple of conscience".[8]

poet Edmund Spenser

"Great force must be the instrument but famine must be the means, for till Ireland be famished it cannot be subdued.

You will notice, it was once considered ok for English poets to write poems about how the Irish should be starved to death.

In 1317, one Irish chronicler opined that it was just as easy for an Englishman to kill an Irishman or English woman to kill an Irish woman as he/she would a dog.

"No Irish need apply"

No Irish need apply

After 1860, many Irish sang songs about signs and notices reading Help wanted – no Irish need apply or similar.[11] The 1862 song "No Irish Need Apply" was inspired by such signs in London. Later Irish Americans adapted the lyrics and the songs to reflect the discrimination they felt in America

However, there is actually debate as to how much anti-irish sentiment there was in the United states.

There actually was thought to be not that much, and the anti-irish sentiment was mostly from English immigrants that brought their anti-irish propaganda to the USA with them.

Historians have debated the issue of anti-Irish job discrimination in the United States. Some insist that the "No Irish need apply" (or "NINA") signs were common, but others, such as Richard J. Jensen, argue that anti-Irish job discrimination was not a significant factor in the United States, and these signs and print advertisements were posted by the limited number of early 19th-century English immigrants to the United States who shared the prejudices of their homeland.

The fact that it has died down recently, would suggest that is to do with the fact that British immigration to the USA is no longer much of a factor anymore.

And also since the good friday peace agreement, it would likely now be considered hate speech, or incitement, worthy of a jail sentence, for Brits to speak this way about the Irish. It is no longer socially acceptable.

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