Sunday, August 27, 2006

Henry Ford and Cork, Ireland

These are challenging times for the Ford Motor Company and its Chairman, William (Bill) Clay Ford Jr., the great-grandson of both Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, the founder of the famous US tire company. Two weeks ago, Bill Ford announced plans to cut North American production by 21% in the fourth quarter to stem huge losses.

Ford today is an unusual large US public company, that was established in 1903, as the Ford family control 40% of the voting shares of the company, held in a trust, and voted in a block.

Henry Ford's pivotal association with the south of Ireland city and county of Cork, is striking for two reasons.

Here was an Irish-American Protestant who was drawn back to his family roots in Cork and as the tractors were begining to roll off the line at the plant he decided to build in Cork City in 1917, the War of Independence against British rule in Ireland was getting underway. Reprisals against Protestants, resulted in the halving of their population in County Cork, within the subsequent five years.

Henry Ford's contribution to Ireland was immense.

Today, our top private sector industrial employers Intel and Dell, together employ about 9,000 people directly. In 1930, when the population of Cork was approximately 80,000, Ford employed 7,000 there and until the assembly operations were closed in 1984, Henry Ford & Son Ltd. was the star company in Cork.

Henry Ford had introduced the world's first moving assembly line in 1913, which reduced chassis assembly time from 12½ hours to 2 hours, 40 minutes. However these innovations were unpopular and turnover of staff was high. So Ford Motor Company pioneered the minimum wage and the 40 hour work week. In January 1914 to the dismay of fellow industrialists, Henry Ford doubled pay to $5 a day, cutting shifts from nine hours to an eight hour day for a 5 day work week, and instituting hiring practices that identified the best workers. By the end of 1913, Ford was producing 50 percent of all cars in the United States, and by 1918 half of all cars in the country were Model T's. In 1928, the last Model T was assembled in Cork.

The Fords and Cork

Henry Ford's grandfather John left famine-stricken Ballinscarthy, near Clonakilty, West Cork, with his family for America in 1847. Ford ancestors had been evicted from land in Somerset, England.

John bought a farm in Michigan from an old acquaintance from West Cork, Henry Maybury (on the night of the 1901 Census, an 18-year old Harry Maybury was staying at one of my great-grandfather's farms near Dunmanway in West Cork). A Patrick Ahern from Fair Lane off Shandon Street in Cork City, had an adjacent farm.

John's eldest son William Ford (1826-1905) married Mary Litogot (c1839-1876) in 1861. She had been an orphan and had been adopted by Patrick Ahern and his family. Henry was born in 1863.

In 1914, the then hugely successful Henry Ford chose to build a 56-room mansion on a 1,300-acre tract of land approximately two miles from his Dearborn birthplace. He named the estate "Fair Lane" after Patrick Ahern's birthplace.

In a 1998 speech, the then US Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, told a story about one of Henry Ford's visits to Cork:

Distinguished graduates and members of Congress, and members of the faculty, honored guests, Janet, ladies and gentlemen. I'm always a little bit intimidated when I come to a new audience. I feel somewhat like Henry Ford, who after having made all of his millions in this country wanted to go back to his fatherland in County Cork, Ireland. His reputation for wealth had long preceded his arrival. So, when he finally stepped off the plane, there were a group of local town officials waiting seeking contributions for the construction of one of their local hospitals.

And Ford, who was quite accustomed to being touched in that fashion, he pulled out his checkbook and made a check out for $5,000. The next day in bold print the local paper said Ford contributes $50,000 for the construction of the local hospital. The local officials came running back and said oh, Mr. Ford, we're terribly sorry. It was not our fault. It must have been a typographical error, and we'll be happy to see to it that a retraction is printed in tomorrow's paper. (Laughter)

He said, wait a minute, I think I've got a better idea. He says, you give me one wish and I'll give you the balance of $45,000. So they said anything you want. He said, I want, when that hospital is finally built, to have an inscription over the entranceway with a quote taken from a source of my choice. They said it's done.

So he gave the check for $45,000, the hospital was built. It is there today. It has a plaque over the entranceway with a quote taken from the book of Matthew. It says, "I came unto you as a stranger and you took me in." (Laughter)

I come unto a little bit as a stranger this morning and I hope you'll take me in, but not quite in that fashion. (Laughter)

Henry Ford died in 1947. He had been a pacifist during World War 1 and had stoked up anti-semitism by blaming Jewish financiers for the hostilities. During World War II, the aviation industry could produce one Consolidated Aircraft B-24 Bomber a day at an aircraft plant. Ford Motor Company would show the world how to produce one B-24 an hour at a peak of 600 per month in 24 hour shifts.