The Irish Culture Club of Delaware

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The Irish In Delaware

The earliest Irish immigrants to Delaware were the Scotch-Irish, who arrived in the 17th century as indentured servants.  The Reverend Francis Makemie, who was born in Ramelton, County Donegal, Ireland in 1658, arrived in Philadelphia in 1683 to minister to them.  He then joined with six other ministers and began to form the first United States Presbytery to minister to them.  By 1706 the New Castle Presbytery was officially established in Delaware, though its earliest church had already been built in 1654. 

The Scots-Irish also formed Wilmington's first Presbyterian congregation in 1740, pastored by Reverand William McKennan, and by 1774 had established a second church (both are pictured  above).  The first church building was  used as a hospital during the Revolutionary War, and was later moved by the Colonial Dames to West Park Drive on the Brandywine, where it continues to be used.  The second church was demolished, and in 1920 the congregations merged to form First and Central Presbyterian Church on Rodney Square.  For a more thorough history, go to "New Castle Presbytery: First in America" at 


The five hundred men of Haslet's Delaware Regiment were honored with a monument in Brooklyn, NY for their valor in the Battle of Brooklyn which occurred on August 27, 1776.  Well-equipped and trained (see the smart Private's uniform to the left), unlike most of Washington's army, these "Delaware Blues" held off the advance of British General James Grant for four hours, buying crucial time for the escape of the remainder of the 1700 soldiers in General Washington's right wing.  The Delaware Continental Line, serving as the rearguard against 9,000 British infantrymen and Royal Marines, lost only two men killed by day's end, a testament to both the skill and tenacity of the regiment.

A private in Haslet's Delaware  Regiment, Continental Line (Delaware Blues), illus: George A. Woodbridge

At the dedication of the monument Delaware State Archivist, Timothy Slavin, stated, "In this spot, they stood against the cream of the British army, one of the greatest armies in the world at that time."  Their Derry-born leader, John Haslet was a Presbyterian minister who emigrated to Dover, Delaware where he also practiced medicine.  He died at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, though his men prevailed, and they fought on with new officers and recruits until war's end.  Another monument to this valiant group was erected in Princeton, NJ. 

The Delaware National Guard's 198th Signal Battalion is a direct descendant of the Revolutionary War Delaware Regiment, and the battalion's flag still carries battle streamers for Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the Peninsula and other immortal battles in American military history.


On January 1, 1801 the British government officially joined Ireland with the United Kingdom.  The controversy over the union with Britain split Ireland, with the exception of the Catholic hierarchy, who were solidly behind the British government, and the Orange party who were effectively opposed, though officially neutral.

A quarter of a century after the American Declaration of Independence from Britain, and while the new United States struggled to establish a nation, millions of Irish citizens were forced to see their country become legally part of the United Kingdom.

A family being evicted from their home.

This union brought no relief from the discrimination against Irish Catholics, Presbyterians and other religious groups.  Many from these groups saw America as the country that would be likely to understand their plight and whose laws guaranteed many of the freedoms the British had long denied them.  Thus a new wave of religious, economic and political refugees soon arrived on American shores and would historically be known as the "Pre-Famine Irish."  The poor economic conditions, extremely limited arable land and the likely impossibility of ever rising above the poverty level spurred this first major emigration of the Irish.

Not surprisingly, many of the Irish immigrants landed in Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence had been signed and where the Industrial Revolution had begun in earnest.  Thousands of Irish landed in the cities of the eastern seaboard and, unable to travel any further into the continent, most settled in the eastern former colonies and established new lives in America.  Like other newly arrived ethnic groups, they settled together, forming wholly Irish communities.  Those arriving in Philadelphia, who were unable to find employment there, found their way to other towns along the river and eventually settled in Wilmington, Delaware. 

Founded in 1740, Wilmington had steadily grown through the years in its industrial output.  By the time these Irish began to arrive, Wilmington already had a reputation for flour and gunpowder mills.  Wilmington's growth in productivity and size accelerated early in the 19th century.  Laborers were needed to keep up the productivity of the city's top manufacturing family, the DuPonts.

The DuPonts had taken advantage of the location of Wilmington.  There was easy access to the Atlantic Ocean facilitating trade with the European continent.  In addition, the Brandywine and other waterways provided the energy for their mills and enabled quick shipping of goods to the Delaware and onto the Atlantic.  The DuPonts were shrewd businessmen and were rapidly gaining huge markets for their gunpowder.  With the arrival of the Irish they demonstrated their reputation for taking advantage.  They did not wait for the Irish to come to them looking for employment.  They went after the Irish.

E.I. DuPont assessed the immigrant situation quickly.  He learned that many of the new arrivals had families in Ireland.  Husbands would rely on relatives to care for their wives and children back home while they tried to establish themselves in America.  DuPont proposed to lend his Irish workers money to bring over their families and friends.  In this way he was bringing in more potential laborers for his mills and growing businesses.

Once the families were reunited in Wilmington, DuPont provided rent-free housing near the mills and factories.  Further, he began to provide medical care and education for his Irish workers and their families, lent money when necessary, and gave them the opportunity to garden and even own land if they chose.  For these poor, landless Irish such benefits were something they had only dreamed of in their native land, so, naturally, they became devoted to the DuPont family and their business. 

In 1804, Irish-born Father Patrick Kenny disembarked at Wilmington and began a 36-year ministry for Catholics in Pennsylvania and Delaware.  He lived at Coffee Run, where there was a little log chapel, St. Mary of the Assumption, built on land that was bought by the Jesuits in 1772.  Among his small congregation were Mrs. Victor duPont (Gabrielle Josephine de  Pelleport) and her children.  

On his way, as an itinerant priest, to Philadelphia, October 7, 1816, Father Kenny stopped in Wilmington for a meeting at the home of Paul McGinnis to discuss plans for a church in the city.  Land for the church, at the corner of Hanover (Sixth) and West streets, was leased from the estate of Martha Whitelock in 1816 to Tom Larkin, Patrick Higgins and Arthur Murray for 100 years at $30 per annum.  There the Cathedral of St. Peter was built.  Father Kenny dedicated the church on September 12, 1818 and celebrated the "first congregational Mass in Wilmington for a vast concourse" the following day.

For more of the fascinating history of St. Peter's, its Irish congregants, orphanage, school and its many Irish pastors, please visit:

In the mid-19th century, the Iron Hill Irish still had no Catholic church in Newark.  Fasting families trudged the seven miles to Elkton, Maryland, to attend Mass. Later they used a railroad hand car to travel between Newark and Elkton. In 1866, the Catholics bought the property of the Village Presbyterian Church at Main and Chapel Streets in Newark. St. John the Baptist Church was erected in 1883 at a cost of $20,000, quite a sum for immigrants to raise. The church remained attached to the Elkton parish for some time.  It is now part of Holy Angels Parish.

Of course, the Irish had other devotions.  The Catholic Church had sustained them during the most trying times in their homeland.  Even though American Protestants were still openly hostile to Catholicism, the Irish were given the same freedom enjoyed by all, namely an education.  

In 1816 the DuPonts established a school at the request of the workers.  The Brandywine Manufacturers' Sunday School opened in October at Simsville cotton mill along the Brandywine.  What is now the Haggley Museum houses materials used in such schools, as well as in smaller classrooms located near factories and the mills which operated at Hagley.  The Irish, again, were startled at such generosity.  For the first time in memory they were able to have their children educated.  Some of the more enterprising (or daring) adults attended reading classes to improve their skills.  The simple act of being able to read was one factor responsible for the decreased dependence on the parish priest.

As churches continued to be built, the idea of establishing a parochial school came into being.  The non-denominational school at Simsville cotton mill began to lose students following 1840, when Roman Catholics built St. Joseph's on the Brandywine, with considerable financial help from the Protestant DuPonts.  A school was attached to the church in 1850 and was staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph, Chestnut Hill, Pa.  Father Peter Donaghy, who served as pastor from 1887 to 1893, was a native of Ireland and was active in maintaining Celtic culture and the Gaelic language among the American Irish. 
The parish priest was more than a religious figure in the Catholic Irish community.  Because of his education he was their legal adviser, handled financial affairs and assorted business matters, read and wrote dictated letters for the illiterate.  Though the priest's influence began to wane as time wore on and the Irish workers became more educated, the Church remained an important aspect of their lives.  

The Irish spread out throughout the city of Wilmington and the state of Delaware, working in the various industries and establishing churches and schools, and continued to flourish.  

A Catholic school and orphanage were established in the city as early as 1830, and in 1839 Father Patrick Reilly, an Irish-born priest, began a boarding school for boys that blossomed into a short-lived collegiate institution.  Parochial schools were also established in all the Catholic parishes.  Thus the children of Irish immigrant workers became educated and began to move into the middle classes.  

An exceptional example is the story of the son of an Irish blacksmith, Henry S. McComb, who was orphaned at age seven and apprenticed to a tanner.  Lacking a formal education, he learned to read and write in a Hanover Presbyterian Church school taught by U.S. District Judge Willard Hall.  Hall was so impressed with the young man's talents that he offered him a large personal loan which enabled him to go into his own tannery business at age eighteen, and by 1860 McComb had become the wealthiest man in Wilmington.

As the population of Wilmington grew to 42,478 by 1880, 34,200 were native-born, and of the foreign-born, 3,644 were from Ireland.  Although no Irish Catholic immigrants rose to prominence as industrialists or were admitted into the top circle of the city during much of the 19th Century, it was not unusual for these foreign-born to achieve success and respectability in such professions as journalism, real estate and construction, as well as brewing and saloon keeping. 

St. Mary's College prepared a number of local Catholic youths for professional careers during the 1850's and 60's and no doubt provided a more genteel image of Irish Catholic culture to Protestant and other Catholic Wilmingtonians than was common in many American cities.

Throughout the twentieth century the influence of the Irish grew, as more and more began to work in the professions and ultimately filled important roles in the law and politics all over Delaware.  The period of 1973 to 1993 saw Irish status reach its peak in Wilmington, as three consecutive Mayors--Tom Maloney, Bill McLaughlin and Dan Frawley--were all Irish Catholics.  Our present mayoral Chief-of-Staff, and long-time head of City Council, Bill Montgomery, is also of Irish descent, as is Larry Sullivan who served as the state's Public Defender for over four decades. 
Countless examples have existed, but, of course, the most famous Irish-Delawarean is our own Vice-President Joe Biden...

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