In the 1840s, thousands of Irish immigrants fled the Great Famine and came to America. If dealing with starvation, gruesome ship conditions, and persecution by the British wasn't enough, Irish immigrants faced significant discrimination in the United States. One of the major ways this discrimination made itself clear was through job postings, both in newspapers and in shop windows, that read "No Irish Need Apply." The signs were blatantly discriminatory and surfaced numerous times during the mid-19th century.
In 2002, history professor Richard J. Jensen decided these signs were few and far between and may not have existed at all. Jensen published an academic paper that stirred controversy among the Irish-American community who felt that their long and deep memory of prejudice and discrimination was invalidated by Jensen's accusations that Irish persecution is a myth. Jensen's theory prevailed for more than a decade until another academic paper was published by 14-year-old Rebecca Fried in 2015 that delineated why Jensen's paper was wrong. She found proof of the "No Irish Need Apply," or NINA, signs with only a few minutes of Googling.
In 2002, Professor Richard J. Jensen Wrote 'No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization'
Richard Jensen believed that No Irish Need Apply signs were a myth perpetuated by a popular 1840s song of the same title. Although he did receive some backlash for his claims, his theory soon became prevalent in discourse about 19th century Irish-American discrimination.
Jensen's essay claimed that Irish Americans' memories of prejudice were exaggerated and that any historical NINA signs were simply modern fakes that easily dupe scholars. The fact that historians believe discrimination against Irish people really occurred didn't deter Jensen from making the bold claim that anyone who saw a NINA sign was mistaken.
People Used Jensen's Paper To Accuse Irish Americans Of Exaggerating Their Victimhood
After Jensen published his article, many people began to believe that Irish Americans were simply playing the victim. Jensen's argument that the historical memory of NINA signs merely stemmed from a song was apparently convincing enough that the public began to blame Irish claims of discrimination on a "culture of victimhood."
Jensen's descriptions of Irish immigrants demonstrated his inherent biases against them. He essentially described the Irish as being overly dramatic and whiny; he even referenced the stereotype of violent Irish immigrants in the abstract of his article. As time went on, the public began using Jensen's argument to explain away the persecution that many immigrant groups face in modern America.
Rebecca Fried, An Eighth Grader, Read Jensen's Article And Decided To Do Some Research
Although many historians and scholars disagreed with Jensen, it took an eighth grader named Rebecca Fried to publicly debunk his claims. In 2015, Rebecca's father brought home Jensen's article for his daughter to read, as he often did with scholarly articles. It piqued Fried's curiosity, and she took to Google to examine Jensen's argument.
Within hours, Fried found irrefutable proof of NINA signs in 19th-century America as well as a much higher number of NINA newspaper postings than Jensen claimed existed. Armed with this information, Rebecca began collecting more information and proof that job discrimination against Irish-American immigrants did in fact exist and was far more widespread than Jensen claimed.
Fried Wasn't Aiming To Disprove Jensen, But She Did So Pretty Quickly
Rebecca Fried researched the subject not to challenge Jensen but rather to satiate her curiosity. Fried decided to research online, collecting as much information as she could. She brought the findings to her father, and the pair concluded that someone must have compiled and published similar research, but they couldn't find anything.
The Frieds contacted a retired history professor named Kerby Miller, a scholar listed in Jensen's article who, according to Jensen, "incorrectly" believed in the NINA "myth."