The importance of the Ford Marina plant in the life of 20th century Cork cannot be overstated, writes Liam Cullinane, of the History Department at UCC.
Prior to the establishment of Henry Ford and Sons Ltd in 1917, Cork city was an economic backwater with almost nothing in the way of modern industry. As one contemporary put it: “Butter, milk, fowls, eggs, and above all other things cattle, are the exports of Cork.”
With an economy largely dependent on trade and agriculture, prospects for the city’s proletariat were bleak. Henry Ford himself, after visiting the birthplace of his maternal grandfather on the northside of Cork in 1912, recounted that he had found a “city of casual labour and extreme poverty” with little industry of any importance.
Given this situation, it is difficult to imagine just how radical the emerging automobile industry must have seemed to Cork people when work on the Marina plant began.
At the time, cars were still relatively recent inventions, while assembly line techniques pioneered by Ford were at the cutting-edge of industry. The effect of such an enterprise being established in Cork is comparable to the establishment of US multi-nationals in provincial areas of China or India in the modern era.
Indeed, one of the problems facing the factory in its early years was so-called ‘green labour’, former craft and agricultural workers who struggled to adjust to life in the hi-tech surroundings of the Ford plant.
For the first decade and a half of its existence, Ford was an island of industrial modernity in the city, becoming the biggest private factory in the young Free State. Indeed, at its height in 1930, the factory employed 6,924, dwarfing any other company in the country and representing the largest Ford facility outside the US.
The figure is especially astonishing given that the city had less than 80,000 inhabitants at the time.
A large proportion of those Cork jobs were lost soon after when much of the Marina’s production was transferred to Britain, but the plant survived, albeit on a smaller scale, and after 1932, was joined by other industries, some of which became even larger. Ford remained a cornerstone of the Cork economy for most of the century.
“You could say I was reared on Ford money and still living on it. There’s a drop of oil and a drop of petrol mixed in with my blood somewhere.”
Those words, the reminiscences of a long-time Ford employee, give some hint as to the importance of the Ford Marina Plant for the multiple generations of Cork workers who were employed within its walls.
Doubtless, it was the economic impact of Ford on Cork that made the most visible impact on the city. The pay in the factory was significantly higher than that of other employers in the region. Indeed, during the 1930s and 1940s, even professionals and university graduates sought work as labourers on the assembly line.
At a time when mass emigration and low wages were an inescapable reality for the Cork working class, Ford represented a chance to own a car, build a house, and support a family in financial comfort. Indeed, one worker recalled trebling his wages overnight by securing employment in the machine shop at Fords (whilst performing the exact same job he had been doing in a different firm).
However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that staff were expected to work hard for their money. One former worker even compared it to a ‘reform school’ where workers faced disciplinary action and dismissal if they stepped out of line!
Moreover, the fluctuating production demands of the factory meant that work there could be brief, seasonal and uncertain until significant changes in the production process during the 1960s.
But as well as providing its workforce with employment, the significance of the Ford factory extended to the social and cultural life of the city.
In addition to the company’s role in sponsoring clubs and social events, the workforce themselves used the workplace as a hub from which to organise everything from Irish language classes to draughts championships and, most famously, the factory football team, Fordson FC (also known as the ‘Tractors’), who went on to win the Free State (FAI) Cup in 1926.
Indeed, the plant was not simply a workplace, but a community, whose importance extended far beyond questions of employment.
Another important effect of Fords on the city of Cork were the links established with Dagenham, a suburb of London and, from 1931, the home of the largest Ford manufacturing facility in Europe. When the new factory was established, a large contingent of Cork Ford workers were transferred there due to their foundry experience.
The numbers of Corkmen working in Dagenham increased massively during World War II. Petrol shortages caused by the ‘Emergency’, followed by a blanket ban on private motoring in the Irish Free State, had seen the numbers employed by the Marina plant reduced substantially.
Meanwhile, the Dagenham plant, now retooled for war production, faced a massive labour shortage as able-bodied Englishmen were called up for military service and government pressure to fulfil demanding war contracts increased.
The result was that, in 1941 alone, some 500 Marina plant employees were transferred to Dagenham, soon followed by many others.
The preponderance of Irishmen, especially Corkonians, in the Dagenham plant is recounted, in song, by one former employee:
‘From the office door to the furnace floor, the accent, as a rule,
Was the one you’d meet down Patrick Street, Blackrock or sweet Blackpool’.
Some of these men would alternate between periods of employment in the Cork Marina plant, and in Dagenham, based on fluctuating production requirements (‘slackage’), a pattern that remained the norm for years to come.
Others, the so-called ‘Dagenham Yanks’, made England their permanent home, forming the core of the vibrant Irish emigrant community that developed in the area.
However, if anything illustrates the importance of Ford to the economic, social and cultural life of Cork city, it is the significance the factory continues to hold in the popular memory of the region, more than 30 years after its closure.
The factory has been the subject of a play, a book, a television documentary and, now in its centenary year, all sorts of commemorations. Yet even these cultural products are merely the tip of a much greater iceberg.
The Marina factory was a beacon to the Cork working class for more than half a century, offering hopes of social advancement and financial security to the workers of the region.
The strongest effect of the factory on the city of Cork may be the real and living memories of those who worked there, as well as their families and dependents, for whom Henry Ford’s plant on the banks of the Lee is very much alive — even if the assembly line has long since ground to a halt.
Liam Cullinane, of the History Department at UCC, is an expert in industrial and labour relations.