Video: Black Powder, White Lace - The du Pont Irish and Cultural Identity in Nineteenth Century America

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When Dr. Margaret Mulrooney visited Hagley on March 27 to present her lecture, “Black Powder, White Lace –the Irish Community at Hagley” the Soda House was packed. More than three hundred and eighty guests came to welcome Dr. Mulrooney back to her hometown, making it Hagley’s largest lecture to date. In order to accommodate such a large audience, Hagley projected the lecture to remote viewing rooms in the Soda House. The video of the lecture is now available on Hagley’s YouTube channel:

Based on the speaker’s background, it was no surprise that the lecture was such a hit. Mulrooney has deep roots in the area. A native Delawarean, Mulrooney graduated from Padua Academy before attending the University of Delaware for her bachelor’s degree. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in history from the College of William and Mary and now serves as Associate Vice Provost for University Programs at James Madison University, in addition to teaching regularly in the history department.

The topic of the lecture was also close to home. Drawing from previous research published in her book, Black Powder, White Lace: The du Pont Irish and Cultural Identity in Nineteenth Century America (2002), Mulrooney spoke about the Irish community at Hagley during the nineteenth century. After searching the archives of the Hagley Library for photographs, letters, petit ledgers, probate inventories, and oral interviews with many who lived in the Irish communities along the Brandywine, Mulrooney was able to provide a glimpse of what life was like for the Irish at Hagley. However, the story Mulrooney told may have been unfamiliar to many.

While many of the workers and families who settled along the Brandywine came from Ireland, they did not fit neatly into popular portrayals of Irish immigrants. Hailing from Ireland’s northern province of Ulster, the Irish community at Hagley emigrated from a rich agricultural region populated with modern market towns. Unlike the waves of mid-nineteenth century Irish potato famine refugees, the du Pont Irish were literate, exposed to modern industry, and generally better off.

Irish workers and families immigrated in a chain migration pattern to the Brandywine, with assistance from the Du Pont Company. Once they arrived at Hagley, workers performed a variety of jobs on the du Pont’s farms and their powder, textile, and keg mills. While many jobs were dangerous, working for the Du Pont Company offered relatively high wages, interest-bearing savings accounts, pensions, free educations for children, and free or low-rent housing. In the early nineteenth century, Irish families on the Brandywine began acquiring household goods –mahogany parlor furniture, silver tea sets, looking glasses, and even musical instruments- to display their increased means and to attain social respectability.

It was not until the late nineteenth century in the midst of the “Celtic revival” that the community at Hagley began attending parish churches regularly and celebrating their heritage. St. Patrick’s Day celebrations across the nation served to create an “Irish” cultural identity that the community along the Brandywine came to share. Thus, the du Pont Irish did not truly become “Irish” until they came to America.

After delivering a captivating account of the Irish community at Hagley, Mulrooney concluded her lecture by posing a simple question: Why study the Irish?

To answer, she explained, “Immigration remains a subject of public debate today just as it was in the nineteenth century when the Irish reached these shores. Sometimes it’s hard for us to remember that immigrants are individuals, first and foremost, and that they are shaped and reshaped by their unique experiences -whether they are the ones that they experienced in the old world or the ones they experienced here in the New World...Thus, the study of the Irish in the past can help us understand life in the United States today.”

Gretchen Pruett is a Hagley Fellow at the University of Delaware and Graduate Assistant at the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at Hagley Museum and Library.