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ANALYSIS: Driving Irish Industry
Advertisement at the Ford factory in Co. Cork Photo: A still from an RTÉ Television news report

ANALYSIS: Driving Irish Industry

Ford, the Diaspora & Ireland's economic development 1917 - 2017

by Seán Ó Riain

As a child in the 1970s I regularly sat in the back of a car travelling along the banks of the Lee at the end of a long journey to visit relations in Cork city. Even to a youngster there was something unusual about it – for on the other side of the river there was that most surprising of sights in Ireland, a large industrial factory. Two factories, in fact – Dunlop, and the icon of industrialism, Ford.

Although Ford’s factory did not begin to produce until 1919, government permission was given in February 1917 and the development of the plant began in that year. This was a mere four years after the world’s first assembly line was built by Ford at the Highland Park factory in Detroit. Cork was not to produce Model T cars however, but Fordson agricultural tractors. In the story of Ford in Cork between 1917 and its closure in 1984, we can see the main drivers and dilemmas of Ireland’s economic development over the past century – with Ford the earliest significant foreign investment, a full 40 years before Shannon’s free trade zone made it a pillar of economic strategy.  

Henry Ford’s father William had left Cork in 1847 and when Henry returned in 1912 to visit Cork, it seems that he had a strong interest in building a connection between the company and the county. Indeed, Ford himself commented later that he had the goal of ‘starting Ireland along a road to industry’. The diaspora, as in many instances over the century that followed, had put Ireland on the map of corporate America – there is more than one corporate office in Silicon Valley where Irish American high tech managers have a picture of themselves, beaming on trips to their Irish office. 

Henry Ford in 1934. (Image: Library of Congress)

But if diaspora connections meant that Ireland got on the radar of corporate decision-makers where it might not have otherwise, getting money and cement poured in on the ground was a much more hard-headed affair. Crucial to this was market access. Demand from the UK for foreign investment was initially linked to wartime conditions, where investment was low but the economy needed tractors to boost agricultural production. As Ireland was still part of the UK, a factory in Cork offered a location within the UK customs union – an issue that looms large again 100 years later. Indeed, independence in 1922 created great agitation within Ford in Cork as customs barriers started to go up.

In fact, the complexities of trade and external relations were evident in Ford’s arrival in Cork – long before the EU and talk of Brexit. British manufacturers were unhappy about UK government reliance on Ford for tractors – however, this only increased support in Ireland where British opposition was easily seen as another national injustice to Ireland, as much as the politics of a competitive market. However, different parties’ interests were complex, with economic and political concerns as always intertwined. While nationalists were supportive of Ford as an alternative to British industry, they favoured tariffs which Ford opposed. Meanwhile, British industrialists would prefer to see Ford in an independent Ireland than in the UK where it could compete from within the customs union. Negotiating Ireland’s external relations was to be just as important as enhancing domestic industrial capabilities in the Irish model of importing industry throughout the 20th century and the debates over Ford’s arrival – even before independence – served as a preview of some of those negotiations.

Ford’s arrival ironically only highlighted that Ireland had missed not only the first ‘heavy’ Industrial Revolution but the ‘light’ industrial revolution of oil and motors in the second half of the 19th century. That industrial leap had provided the basis for other small European countries, such as Denmark, to boost themselves from agricultural into industrial economies. However, Ireland was still sorting out much of the legacies of the land wars and the historical settlement that formed a smallholder class oriented towards property – rather than the industrial working class that formed the basis of much of other European countries’ development. Furthermore, while Denmark and others saw victories for these new industrial classes and the rise of trade unions, the outcomes of Ireland’s struggles were much less favourable – with Ford arriving four years after the defeats of the 1913 Lockout

The seeds of Ireland’s failure to participate in the Golden Age of European capitalism later in the 20th century had already been sown by the time of Ford’s arrival. However, the Ford factory represented the most significant early attempt to start on the road to industry (long before ‘importing industrialisation’ became government policy). As manufacturing scale and know-how was very weak in Ireland, bringing external corporate investment was a reasonable way to try and import technology and organisational know-how. However, the weaknesses that would dog this model when it was official policy were also evident in Ford’s experience. Investment in the Ford factory was lower than in UK plants and Ireland served largely as a low value, lower cost centre within the UK area. The weakness of local industry – and the absence of efforts to develop and support it – meant that there was poor integration with local suppliers. The late 1920s brought an attempt to make Cork the centre of Ford’s worldwide tractor production. However, the Great Depression hit the market and distance from markets, competition from much larger operations within Ford and weaknesses of the labour force and industrial system proved fatal to the prospects of such a strategic role.

Even in the Celtic Tiger years, the broader potential benefits of foreign investment were only realised when combined with policies that enhanced education and enterprise development in the indigenous economy. Similarly, almost a century before, while Ford brought new organisational capabilities to Ireland, they remained largely within the company itself. At risk of closure in the late 1920s, it was ultimately the introduction of protectionist tariffs in the 1930s that ensured Ford stayed in Cork – now primarily assembling vehicles for the domestic market. Although the Irish market was small, it was dominated by Ford for decades – even making its mark on popular culture, with Ford’s “Red Cortina” one of the stars of The Sawdoctors’ bittersweet 1991 song of first love. It was also unusual in Irish economic and social history as it (and the Dunlop Company next door) served as large scale centres of working class culture, built around major manufacturing centres. The social and cultural life around Ford and Dunlop's was the exception in a country where employment was typically in smaller firms, in commerce or on the land.

Ford remained a major employer for another 50 years, until its closure in 1984 just as the final tariffs around car imports were being removed. Founded to gain market access within the UK, its path smoothed by diaspora connections, Ford’s impact on the broader Irish economy was limited by the weakness of labour force education and training and of the existing industrial base. Ford had a major impact on economic and social life in Cork. However, unlike in the US, the growth of Ford could not drive Fordism in Ireland.

Footage from the news report in 1984 when the Ford factory closed in Cork via RTÉ Archives. For more info click here.

10 years after Ford closed its doors in Cork, I found myself in Highland Park, Detroit – standing in front of a plaque that read: 'Here at his Highland Park Plant, Henry Ford in 1913 began the mass production of automobiles on a moving assembly line. By 1915 Ford built a million Model Ts. In 1925 over 9,000 were assembled in a single day. Mass production soon moved from here to all phases of American industry and set the pattern of abundance for 20th century living.' However, the plaque stood alone in front of a shuttered building and waste ground. In the three decades after 1979 61 automotive plants closed in Detroit and only a handful of assembly plants remained in 1994 as I read the plaque in front of me, surrounded by industrial decline and social blight. 'Fordism' was no longer the basis of prosperity in the industrial US, a change with dramatic global political consequences in 2016. The system of mass production had in many ways run its course – in the US, where it had dominated, and in Ireland, where it had barely taken hold. However, in the later years of Ford’s century, Ireland had been much more successful in joining the latest technological revolution – of computing and information. Again the diaspora featured, but this time through transnational technical communities that linked Irish and foreign firms across key regional centres in the global economy. Foreign investment remained central to Ireland’s development strategy, but was now greatly enhanced by vastly extended education and improved domestic capabilities and supports for indigenous firms. The dilemmas for Ireland in 2017, while previewed in Ford’s early history, were now on a new terrain of increasingly professional labour forces, transformed work and employment, global ties between high tech regions and the increasingly important and uncertain politics of trade and investment.

Seán Ó Riain is Professor of Sociology at Maynooth University. His books include The Rise and Fall of Ireland's Celtic Tiger: Liberalism, Boom and Bust (2014)

Further Reading:
Grimes, T. (2008) Starting Ireland on the Road to Industry, PhD Thesis, Department of History, NUI Maynooth
Jacobson, D. (1977) ‘The political economy of industrial location: the Ford motor company in Cork 1912-26’, Irish Economic and Social History 4: 36-55.
Nyhan, M (2006) 'Narration and Memory: The experiences of the workforce of a Ford plant', Irish Economic and Social History 33: 18-34.

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