I’m sure that many ASF readers are aware of the research by Rebecca A. Fried, the fourteen year old American high school student, who has overturned the conventional revisionist wisdom of the last decade denying the existence of the infamous “Irish Need Not Apply” signs that were prevalent in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Her study, “No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs”, published by the Oxford Journal of Social History, has triggered a small earthquake in the academic world.
To understand why the controversy has arisen we must go back to 2002 and the publication of the study, “No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization”, by the conservative historian Richard J. Jensen of the University of Illinois-Chicago. In it Jensen argued that this form of anti-Irish prejudice, sometimes abbreviated as “NINA”, was part of a largely fictional “Irish Catholic” cult of victimhood. In the abstract to his publication the historian stated that:
“Irish Catholics in America have a vibrant memory of humiliating job discrimination, which featured omnipresent signs proclaiming ‘Help Wanted—No Irish Need Apply!’ No one has ever seen one of these NINA signs because they were extremely rare or non-existent.”
Jensen’s “myth-busting” thesis gained popularity, especially among the more anglophiliac or residually anti-Irish media in the US. However until now no one else had actually examined the records of the period, taking the academic’s judgement at face value. The Daily Beast takes up the story:
“After only couple of hours Googling it, Rebecca, a 14-year-old, had found out these signs had, in fact, existed all along. Not only in newspaper listings—in which they appeared in droves—but, after further research, in shop windows, too.
The Irish were persecuted in the American job market—and precisely in the overt, literally written-down way that was always believed.
All of this would have been written off as a myth if it weren’t for Rebecca Fried, a rising high school freshman—who one of the preeminent scholars on the Irish diaspora in the United States now calls a “hero” and “quite extraordinary”—and who simply couldn’t believe it, either.”
The student and her family soon contacted the historian Kerby Miller seeking advice, his summation of the situation giving us a window into the pernicious nature of historical “revisionism” as it relates to Ireland and the Irish in the anglophone world – and inter alia Britain and the British.
“Enter Kerby Miller, a newly retired history professor from the University of Missouri. He’s written everything from Guggenheim-funded books about the 18th-century Irish to the PBS documentary Out of Ireland with Paul Wagner. In 1986, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for history.
“From the first, my responses to Jensen’s claims had been strongly negative, as were those of a few other scholars, but, for various reasons, most historians, social scientists, journalists, et cetera accepted or even embraced Jensen’s arguments,” says Miller.
Miller says it all makes sense when you consider the parallels between Jensen’s arguments and the tone of anti-Irish propaganda after the Irish Civil War.
“This was a period dominated in Irish writing by those who collectively came to be known as ‘revisionists.’ What they did was, in some cases, take every traditional Irish Catholic belief concerning British Colonialists—some of which were heroic, even—and turn them upside down,” says Miller. “The British and Britain’s supporters were not to be seen as oppressors. They were now to be considered those taking down Irish Catholic oppression.”
Miller says it applies to all of Irish history, but recent history as well—even events and acts of persecution that the Irish lived through themselves.
“A lot of people were getting sick of this, but were afraid to speak out. They wanted to say it’s bullshit, but you would be regarded as an uncouth barbarian or an IRA sympathizer,” says Miller. “The narrative was that, ‘They should stop their whining! They weren’t victims! They weren’t oppressed!’”
He’d been trying to bat down the conclusions in Jensen’s paper for 13 years. Miller says he knew something was fishy from the outset.
But something else tipped him off.
“Even more suspicious is that it seemed to fit into a political or ideological framework, in addition to his own writing, which was obviously polemically bent,” he says.
This is, after all, how the abstract in Jensen’s paper ends:
“Some Americans feared the Irish because of their religion, their use of violence, and their threat to democratic elections. By the Civil War these fears had subsided and there were no efforts to exclude Irish immigrants. The Irish worked in gangs in job sites they could control by force. The NINA slogan told them they had to stick together against the Protestant Enemy, in terms of jobs and politics. The NINA myth justified physical assaults, and persisted because it aided ethnic solidarity. After 1940 the solidarity faded away, yet NINA remained as a powerful memory.”
Miller says he wrote to Jensen at one point to contest it.
“Jensen’s email response to my criticisms was that they were to be expected because I was an Irish-American and a Catholic,” says Miller.
“In fact, as I responded to him, I am neither.”
Miller says he realized this might be an unwinnable fight when he went to New Zealand to present some work and he was bombarded with questions on why he didn’t believe Jensen. One man asked who in his family was Irish Catholic. Miller kindly reminded the questioner that the answer is no one—until he remembered his wife is.
“They said, ‘That’s gotta be it!’ That’s why I’m sympathetic to these Irish rebel terrorist scum!” he says, laughing.
“I hadn’t realized how extraordinarily dominant Jensen’s argument had become. I don’t know if that says something about the hierarchy of power in academia, or the others who accepted it because they bought into this revisionist interpretation.”
He wasn’t alone. Miller could name other scholars who questioned Jensen’s motives. He even tried to talk some of them into writing about it.
Miller opened up Rebecca’s thesis. He quickly realized all of the academics too busy to take on Jensen couldn’t have done it better than a 14-year-old.”
That historians and writers in the United States and elsewhere were too intimidated to challenge a contemporary form of denialism in relation to historical accounts of anti-Irish racism in the US is extraordinary. More bizarrely the original NINA-denier, Richard J. Jensen, then challenged the conclusions of Rebecca Fried’s research when they were examined in an article for the Irish Central website, albeit through the Comments’ section. Patrick Young has looked even deeper into the controversy, highlighting the troubling wording in Jensen’s original study and the manner in which he treats his Irish subjects. If you don’t read anything else, read this.
As Kerby Miller indicates, the long shadow of the “apologist clique” in Irish and British academia continues to darken our understanding of the past, obfuscating the effects of Britain’s colonial misadventures on our island nation, both at home and abroad.