Rebecca Fried, a 14-year-old Washington, D.C. schoolgirl, has done the Irish American community a great service by exposing the recent myth propelled by a professor that “No Irish Need Apply” signs did not exist except in isolated incidents.
Rebecca’s challenge was to Professor Richard Jensen of the University of Illinois, who had written a deeply influential paper in 2002 that argued that the number of such signs and advertisements had been greatly exaggerated.
His thesis became accepted fact in many corners of academia -- until Rachel Fried took it head on.
As The Washington Post, Smithsonian magazine and the Daily Beast all reported, Rebecca with a simple Google search and some old fashioned research found quite the opposite -- including evidence that there were violent incidents around such ads.
IrishCentral issued a call to readers to send in examples they knew of, and soon we soon had over 1,400 cases documented, starting in 1828 and including signs as far away as Alaska and Australia.
Why is all this important? The Irish community is entitled to the historic truth about what our ancestors faced when they first came to America.
Many came in coffin ships. The only emigrants worse off were the blacks from Africa who came in chains.
Yet there has been a loose movement, much of it from academia and revisionist Irish sources, to undermine the reality of the Irish emigrant experience in America.
It is a dangerous precedent, rewriting the history of a people who by any standard faced very hard times when they arrived on America’s shores.
It took a 14-year-old high schooler in Washington to set the record straight on an integral part of that history.
As noted Irish American historian Kerby Miller, author of "Emigrants and Exiles" noted, it was difficult to refute assertions made by Professor Jepsen because many in academia were inclined to believe them because of a cultural bias.
In a week where an Irish bishop compared the plight of drowning African emigrants off Europe’s shores to Ireland’s coffin ships, it seems particularly important to get the historical record straight.
Professor Jepsen in dialogue with Rebecca Fried has refused to acknowledge his paper was incorrect, which seems a very churlish position given the overwhelming evidence.
His refusal makes clear the inherent bias that is indeed there out in academia towards Irish Americans in history.
We need to unashamedly reclaim that legacy for what it is: A magnificent emigrant success story, overcoming huge prejudice and discrimination.
Remember the signs lasted well into the 20th century, yet by 1960 an Irish American was in the White House in the person of JFK.
It was an epic journey and we should never forget the facts. A big thank you to Rebecca Fried for setting the truth free.
* Originally published August 2015