Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 3 March 2022
Journeys to a Free State: The Henry Ford Motion
During simmering tensions amongst Treaty and anti-Treaty factions in February and March 1922, a motion passed by eighteen members of Cork Corporation created another stream of tensions amongst Cork citizens. The motion concerned the Ford factory in The Marina and a call to Henry Ford that the target of 2,000 employees as set out in the lease agreement between the Corporation and the company be put in place within two months of the motion.
Henry Ford’s journey to create the tractor factory from first negotiations in 1916 to the first tractor rolling off the production line in mid-July 1919 was not straight forward and ultimately required significant investment on his side. The site of the proposed factory was fully in the possession of Cork Corporation but a racecourse committee held a lease of the land. In 1916, there were 35 years of an agreed lease still in play to the committee at £175 a year. Fortunately, the lease contained a clause that at any time the Corporation could retake possession of the holding, if it was required for factory sites.
The Ford company also required a strip of land on the docks from the Marina to R & H Hall. This was a very valuable site. Henry Ford’s team agreed to pay 7s 6d per foot per annum, which was on par with what R & H Hall and Furlongs were paying to Cork Corporation.
Fords also needed a portion of land that was in the hands of the Cork Harbour Board. It consisted mainly of a wharf that had been erected a few short years before Ford’s arrival. It was built as a docks site to discharge timber and was 500 feet in length. At that point as well in the south docks area, there were also limitations on turning long vessels in the river. Vessels could be no longer than 420 feet long. However, for the four years of the wharf’s existence no vessel of any kind used it. Initially it cost £8000 but the Henry Ford & Son Company paid £10,000 for it to buy it outright.
In addition, to the money that the Henry Ford and Son Company paid down for The Marina site, certain guarantees also had to be signed up to. A total of £200,000 needed to be expended upon the site and buildings and 2,000 men at 1s an hour were to be employed at a minimum – making a total investment in wages alone of over £,4,800 per annum.
For the Ford company, the total spent on the land and buildings ended up close to £275,000. A further £485,000 was spent on equipment and machinery. By early 1920, the company were employing 1,500 men with a weekly wages bill far in excess of anything contemplated at that time at between £8,000 and £9,000 weekly. The rates paid by the company to the Corporation were also substantial.
There were four outside firms in Cork doing sub-production work for the Ford company. One of them was employing 40 men solely on Ford work. In addition, hundreds of men were working indirectly for the Ford company, such as carters, dockers, etc being employed by transport companies in the conveyance of the company’s goods and products. In short, the Ford investment annually into the Cork economy was quite substantial.
Edward Grace, Managing Director of Fords in Cork, wrote to Lord Mayor Donal Óg O’Callaghan and the members of the Corporation re-iterating the company’s significant investment in Cork and asking them to rescind the motion. The letter was published in the Cork Examiner on 2 March 1922. He described that before Ford’s arrival only 10 per cent of the tractor was manufactured in Ireland; in 1922 it was over 90 per cent, principally in Cork and its neighbourhood. In addition, they were manufacturing the complete engine of a Ford car, a part which was bound for the Ford Trafford Park Factory in Manchester. In early 1922, the company suffered from the general economic slump between Britain and Ireland and had to restrict its employment of staff from a high of 1,500 men employed in 1920 to 940 men in February 1922. However, the 1922 workers were on a rate of 2s 1d per hour, which was double the wages stipulated by the Corporation lease agreement.
The Corporation motion also upset hundreds of Ford workers who met en masse outside the factory on The Marina on the evening of 3 March 1922. They all agreed upon a motion to be sent to the Lord Mayor; “That this meeting of Ford workers strongly protest against the ill-advised and ill-judged action of a section of Cork Corporation, and hereby call on the Corporation as a whole to take immediate steps to rectify what may easily become a serious calamity to us, our families, to the City of Cork. A second motion was also put forward and agreed upon to be cabled to Henry Ford; “That Ford workers, Cork, disassociate themselves from action of section of Corporation. Taking steps to have recent mistake rectified. Your position appreciated and endorsed by the workers”.
Henry Ford was livid receiving the Cork Corporation motion and by 6 March 1922 had ordered the shutting down of his Cork factory. The workers presented themselves to the city’s labour exchange. The exchange already had 8,000 people on its books and telegraphed the Dublin Labour Exchange for extra administration support.
By 9 March 1922, Diarmuid Fawsitt of the Ministry of Economics of the Irish Provisional Government visited the Ford factory accompanied by Liam De Róiste, TD and James C Dowdall, President of the Cork Industrial Development Association. As secretary to the Cork IDA, Diarmuid was associated with the coming of the Henry Ford firm to Cork. At the conclusion of their visit, they strongly called for Cork Corporation to rescind the motion.
A day later on the 10 March, members of Cork Corporation met and the motion was rescinded. Another agreed motion at the meeting set out a call for a resolution; “That the city solicitor confer with the legal representatives of Messrs H Ford with a view to an amicable settlement. That a delegation of two members of council be appointed to wait on Mr Henry Ford and explain the matter fully to him on receipt of his reply to cable of the Lord Mayor”. Ultimately the Ford factory immediately resumed its work under its own terms of progress and through several weeks of negotiation the legal binding element of 2,000 workers was waived by Cork Corporation members.
1340a. Ford Factory, Cork, c.1930 (picture: Cork City Library).