The People

Irish laborer portrait
Irish laborer, 1850s.
Courtesy of College Cork, Ireland.

The majority of the immigrants who were brought over by DuPont were relatives or friends of the company's powder yard employees. In the first phase of immigration, more men than women came to the Brandywine with an average age of about 15 and 30. As these workers settled into the community, they began to bring over their wives, children and siblings in a process historians have termed "chain migration."

The majority of immigrants who arrived during the second phase of immigration were still young, but women began to slightly outnumber the men. By the third phase of immigration, during the famine years, the gender distribution had become almost equal, but a shift had taken place in the types of parties arriving. Rather than single individuals or the groups of two or three siblings or cousins that had dominated the earlier phase of immigration, whole families began to emigrate together. This trend led to a marked increase in the number of young children as well as the number of people over the age of forty.

Where Did They Come From?

Early Immigration, 1803-1830

Map of Ireland
Ireland, ca. 1800

Most of the immigrants came from Ulster, or the northern part of Ireland, with the largest number emigrating from the counties Fermanagh, Donegal, Tyrone, and Londonderry. Northern Irish names such as Dougherty, Duffy, Maguire, O'Donnell, Devlin, and Sweeney were extremely common among the new arrivals.

Letterkenny was the most frequently mentioned place of origin for the immigrants. The town, located on the Swilly River in the eastern portion of County Donegal, contained almost four hundred houses, a courthouse, a school, a market square, and a Catholic church. Immigrants claiming Letterkenny as their home village may have been from the town itself or from the surrounding 45,000 acre parish of Conwall. The Crerans, McCarrons, Gibbonses, Haugheys, Gallaghers, Lynches, and McGeadys were just a few of the families that hailed from the Letterkenny area.

Why Did They Come?

Drawing of Bridget O'Donnel and two children in rags
Bridget O'Donnel and children,
Irish Potato Famine,
Illustrated London News, December 1849

Many books have been written on the subject of Irish emigration during the nineteenth century. The causes for this mass migration are numerous and complex, but there are two that had a significant impact on the immigrants to the Brandywine region.

The first, of course, is the Famine caused by the potato blight that struck in the late 1840s. However, even before the Famine, many Irish youth were leaving their homeland in search of more promising opportunities. The cultural norm of large families meant that there was usually not enough of an inheritance for all of the children to receive a portion of land or a dowry, so younger children in a family often saw emigration as their best change to get ahead.

What Did They Do When They Arrived?

employee housing
Employee housing near Walker's Mill
on the Brandywine River, ca. 1890.
Buildings constructing around 1813.

Many of the immigrants went to work in the powder yards or as domestic staff for the du Pont family. However, not all of the immigrants brought to Delaware by DuPont went on to work for the company. Some studies suggest that many of the women worked as domestic servants for local families or found jobs in area textile mills. Immigrants may have also settled in Philadelphia or even in the West, either right away or after working in the powder yard, for a number of months or years to save some money.

In general, the immigrants were fairly successful at avoiding the terrible living conditions that plagued larger cities. The Irish community eventually created a hybridized culture that included elements of both traditional Irish folkways and modern industrial capitalism. Religious traditions remained fairly stable, foodways remained similar to those enjoyed in Ireland, and parents continued to give their children traditional names.

However, the immigrants' participation in modern consumer society through the purchase of mass-produced goods, a growing emphasis on saving money and amassing private property, and a new focus on social mobility show that they were beginning to accept American cultural values.