That’s because Rebecca was too busy trying to get through the 8th grade.
In 2002, University of Illinois-Chicago history professor Richard J. Jensen printed “No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization.” His abstract begins:
“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 nonexistent.”
In short, those famous “No Irish Need Apply” signs—ones that proved Irish Americans faced explicit job discrimination in the 19th and 20th centuries? Professor Jensen came to the blockbuster conclusion that they never existed.
The theory picked up traction over the last decade, but seemed to reach an unexpected fever pitch in the last few months. Explainer websites this year used it to highlight popular myths of persecution complexes that are, as Vox put it, “stand-ins for an entire narrative about how immigrants are treated in America.” That’s from the lede of an article printed in March called “‘No Irish Need Apply’: the fake sign at the heart of a real movement.”
Here, of course, is the problem: 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.
Rebecca never set out to prove the thesis wrong. She was just interested in an article her dad brought home from work one day.
“Now and then I bring home stuff for the kids to read if I think they will find it interesting or will convey some lesson,” says Michael Fried, Rebecca’s father. “Half the time they don’t read them at all. Sometimes they’ll read something if I suggest it. Nothing has ever come of any of these things other than this one.”
Rebecca wasn’t even trying to disprove her dad—let alone an academic at the University of Illiniois-Chicago. She just figured she’d Google the words and see what came up over 100 years ago.
“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 says. “I was really surprised when I started finding examples of NINA ads in old 19th-century newspapers pretty quickly.”
So she started collecting a handful of examples, then dozens, then more. She went to as many newspaper databases as she could. Then she thought, somebody had to have done this before, right?
“I didn’t see anything right away. This led me to wonder if it might be worth writing up in some form,” she says. “I showed my dad right away when I started finding these NINA ads. We just didn’t know whether this was already widely known and, if it wasn’t, whether it would be viewed as a topic worth considering for publication.”
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.
“It was out of the blue on May 1st, May Day—which is sort of fortuitous, now that I think about it,” says Miller. May Day is International Workers’ Day, which celebrates laborers worldwide.
They wanted to know if they were missing something. They weren’t.
In fact, for years, Miller wanted to know why everyone else was missing the obvious.
“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. . .