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Jensen’s “No Irish Need Apply” and Kenny’s “Race, Violence, and Anti-Irish Sentiment in the Nineteenth Century” provide revealing insights into race relations in America, particularly with reference to the plight of Irish immigrants to the United States. While both authors discuss the issues of anti-Irish sentiment in the nineteenth century, however, each takes a markedly different approach to their understandings of discrimination and racism against the Irish in America.
Jensen writes a bold, new interpretation of Irish–American history, and argues that the “No Irish Need Apply,” or NINA ideology said to have pervaded businesses in the United States was largely a fabrication of the Irish people. He effectively asserts that there is a surprising scarcity of evidence to support the widely-held view that the Irish were victims of workplace discrimination in the nineteenth century. In fact, Jensen writes that unskilled Irish workers were very likely welcomed into American business (409). While I agree with Jensen that there appears to be a definite lack of sufficient support to argue that the Irish were discriminated against under the NINA ideology, I believe his claim that the Irish used the NINA slogan as a protective tool falls short of his own criticism. While I found his argument about the possibility of Irish-Americans using NINA as an agent to ensure solidarity interesting, Jensen’s use of a single man’s assessment of the collective spirit of the Irish people to represent a century’s worth of political, economic, and racial struggles for Irish-Americans is audacious (417). With that being said I applaud Jensen’s effort because of this risk. As Kevin Kenny states in response to Jensen’s work, the conclusions presented are not supported by any other historians in the field (Kenny 372). In this way Jensen presents a novel method of evaluating the Irish-American solidarity of the nineteenth century, but ultimately falls short in providing a convincing argument for why it persisted.
On the other hand, Kenny’s work is much more conservative than Jensen’s, and ultimately this works in his favor. In his essay, Kenny successfully classifies the differences between anti-Irish sentiment among British and American societies. Unlike Jensen, Kenny also focuses on the progression of racism against the Irish, beginning with the caricature of “Paddy” in the news media; Paddy “was a uniquely racialized figure” (369). Kenny is also able to use several cases of Irish labor groups – the Molly Maguires, the Whiteboys, and the Ribbonmen – to illustrate the collective violent practices used by these groups, leading to the growth of anti-Irish sentiment because of perceived potential threats towards American society (373). Kenny’s statement that labor and class were largely inseparable from race in nineteenth century America was also well supported through his discussion of racism against Asian and black people in comparison to the Irish (375). Augmenting the evidence he provides for depicting an American culture with racist attitudes towards Irish-Americans is Jensen’s organization of his essay. Through his clearly articulated arguments and thorough treatment of historiography his claims are more cogent than those presented by Jensen.
While I agree with Max’s comments in stating that Kenny could have extended his essay to elaborate upon other factors affecting Irish-American racism in the nineteenth century, in doing so I believe Kenny may have lost his central argument that Irish collective violence was the basis for anti-Irish sentiment in the United States. By adding interpretations to this work Kenny might be falling back into the historiography he is trying to distance himself from, making his argument less an original piece than an amalgamation of what other scholars have stated about Irish-American racism. While narrowing one’s focus definitely runs the risk of weakening the quality of a historical work (just see my criticism of Jensen), I ultimately think both Kenny’s and Jensen’s article make important contributions to understanding the development of the Irish-American community in the 19th century.