Beginning in the 1840s, Ireland’s rotting potato crops drove hundreds of thousands of its people to flee to the United States. The discrimination that Irish immigrants encountered in their new home was hardly subtle. Instead, it was as plain as the black-and-white print that blared “No Irish Need Apply” in newspaper employment advertisements and window signs.
According to one academic, however, that history, which has been handed down from generation to generation of Irish-Americans, was “a myth of victimization.” Richard Jensen, a Yale Ph.D. and a retired history professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote in a 2002 article in the Oxford Journal of Social History that although “No Irish Need Apply” (NINA) signs existed in Great Britain, “There is no evidence for any printed NINA signs in America or for their display at places of employment other than private homes.”
Jensen wrote that the prejudice that existed was anti-Catholic rather than anti-Irish and that “there have been no documented instances of job discrimination against Irish men.” The professor said his searches of help wanted advertisements in online newspaper databases revealed that NINA ads for men were so rare that they amounted to fewer than two per decade from the 1850s to the 1920s. Jensen theorized that the myth arose from an American adaptation of a British song entitled “No Irish Need Apply” that became popular in the early 1860s.
“The NINA myth fostered among the Irish a misperception or gross exaggeration that other Americans were prejudiced against them, and were deliberately holding back their economic progress,” wrote Jensen, who added that the stories’ continued prevalence among Irish-Americans was perhaps due to “the political need to be bona-fide victims.”
Jensen’s argument that anti-Irish employment signs were urban legends seeped into the mainstream of academia and went largely unrefuted over the ensuing decade—until 14-year-old Rebecca Fried found out about it. According to The Daily Beast web site, the incoming freshman at Sidwell Friends School—a private school in Washington, D.C., that counts President Barack Obama’s daughters among its students—read an article her father brought home about Jensen’s research and found the purported lack of NINA ads surprising.
“Just for the fun of it, I started to run a few quick searches on an online newspaper database that I found on Google,” she told The Daily Beast. “I was really surprised when I started finding examples of NINA ads in old 19th-century newspapers pretty quickly.”
The deeper Fried dug through online archives, the more she found. The teenaged historian discovered dozens of NINA newspaper advertisements printed in big cities such as New York and Boston and small towns such as Alpine, Texas, and Monmouth, Illinois. In 1842 editions of the New York Sun alone, she found 15 instances of advertisements telling Irish men not to apply. In addition, Fried’s research unearthed newspaper accounts mentioning NINA signs appearing in workplaces and public accommodations as well as reports of Irish-American workers protesting and striking in response. Contrary to Jensen’s contention that no court cases involving NINA existed, Fried found one from 1853 and another from 1881.
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As The Daily Beast reports, Fried contacted Kerby Miller, a recently retired history professor at the University of Missouri who had been skeptical of Jensen’s findings, about her research, and he encouraged the teenager to publish her findings. In July, the Oxford Journal of Social History, the same academic publication that printed Jensen’s 2002 article, published Fried’s rebuttal: “No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs.”
Fried argued that Jensen’s thesis “requires revision” based on her findings. “The documentary record better supports the earlier view that Irish-Americans have a communal recollection of NINA advertising because NINA advertising did, in fact, exist over a substantial period of United States history, sometimes on a fairly widespread basis,” Fried wrote.
Jensen told the Washington Post that the dozens of examples of NINA ads cited by Fried in her piece still do not prove that anti-Irish job discrimination was anything but rare. “I will suggest that that may be a lot for a historian to digest, but there was very little for an actual Irishman to see,” he said.
A spirited back-and-forth debate between Jensen and Fried recently arose in the comments section of an article on the IrishCentral.com web site detailing the teenager’s research. “It’s a matter of whether the glass is half full or half empty,” Jensen told Fried. “I think you have a very big glass, with a couple of drops of water at the bottom, and you call it half-full.” Responding to a request by the web site to bolster Fried’s research, IrishCentral readers have reported finding more than 1,000 other instances of NINA advertisements in online newspaper databases.
The journal article on anti-Irish job discrimination may not be Fried’s last. She told The Daily Beast she is considering “exploring other areas where digitized newspaper evidence might supply new historical insights.”
America: Promised Land The 2-part special premieres Memorial Day at 9/8c on HISTORY.