Although he was only a teenager when the Ford and Dunlop plants on the Marina in Cork closed down in the early 1980s, the events left a lasting impression on Pat Kiernan.
He went on to found a theatre company called Corcadorca which specialises in staging dramatic productions in site-specific venues, rather than normal stages.
As its artistic director in 2004, Pat commissioned a Cork-born writer, Ray Scannell, to write a play about the closures 20 years earlier — and the venue for it would be the old Ford factory site.
The result, a play called Losing Steam, was a sell-out success as part of the 2004 Midsummer Festival in Cork, and, with its setting in the recessionary 1980s, brought interesting comparisons into play with the roaring Celtic Tiger of the time, an era of full employment and industrial growth.
Theatre critic Liam Heylin praised the play and said it “looks at the fabric of Cork’s relatively recent social history and, in a very real sense, it is more than just a writer’s words, it is not a subtle thing but a tribal event.”
Losing Steam had a community cast of 30 and six professional actors and centred around two families affected, in different ways, by the closure of Ford.
Kiernan also wanted the play to embrace the punk music scene of the era at the former Arcadia in the city, known as the Arc’, and one of the characters is a Ford manager whose daughter is a punk rocker.
Looking back now, 13 years later, Kiernan says the success of the play was helped by the fact that “people in the city are interested in their own history.”
He added: “It captured the imagination of people in a more general way than maybe other shows. It had authenticity in that the play took place in part of the factory.
“Ford was such a huge part of the city. Down in Crosshaven, you had the summer homes made out of Ford boxes. A lot of the Arc’ crowd also came to see the play.”
To bolster the angry musical element of the drama, local musician, Ricky Dineen, formed a four piece post punk rock band to perform in the play, comprised of some of the original members of prominent Cork band of the time, Five Go Down To The Sea.
The writer, Scannell, was only six when Ford closed its plant in 1984. He said: “When I was asked to write the play, it was one of those gigs where I was a gun-for-hire as a writer rather than it being my own play.
“Pat left it very open and wanted the backdrop of the Arcadia. The running narrative of the time was that youth culture was reacting to what was going on. There was frustration. Cork felt very let down by what was going on.”
The time-frame of Losing Steam took in the era when the Dunlop closure was announced in 1983 and 850 people were made redundant. Its workers picketed the Ford factory — where workers were also uncertain about their future.
“As a way of getting attention, the lads from Dunlop cut off the steam supply to Ford,” explains Scannell. “That’s where the title of the play comes from, Losing Steam. The two factories were joined by a steamer which was run by Dunlop. Ford used the steam to dry the paint (from cars).”
As part of his research, Scannell spoke to workers at Dunlop and former management at Ford. “It was tricky. There’s always two sides to a story. Being that bit younger, as a writer, I was looking at two extremes. The narrative was ‘management bad, workers good’. But from what I gathered, there was nothing that could have been done at Ford. It was part of a global thing.
“Car factories were becoming automated. The line I got was that robots don’t take tea breaks.”
For the play, a warehouse setting was flimsily constructed of corrugated aluminium, with a whiff of engine oil. There was no seating, and the audience could move around to follow the action.
When the show opened, Kiernan commented: “Everybody in Cork had a connection with Ford and Dunlop. It wasn’t just financial, it was psychological too.
“It helped the notion of Cork being the ’real capital’. It was like we didn’t need Dublin. Ford is an international company, but Henry Ford’s father and grandfather was born in Ballinascarthy so there was local pride in it.”
Losing Steam was also a big deal for many of the actors.
Julie Kelleher, now Artistic Director of the Everyman Palace Theatre, was 21 when she was cast in it — it was her first professional gig having just finished her final undergraduate exams.
She played Shirley Geraghty, whose father is on the management team at Ford.
“It was kind of a class drama,” she recalls now. “My character was from a very middle class family who was rejecting her background and entering the punk world. Her boyfriend was from a working class background whose people were factory line workers.”
Kelleher says it was “a great thrill to get the part”.
She added: “I had done an internship with Corcadorca and I then had the opportunity to audition for Losing Steam.
“Every now and then in the play, there would be an explosion of brilliant Cork punk rock. It totally turned me on to that music. There were such brilliant tunes like There’s a Fish On Top Of Shandon Swears He’s Elvis.”
It was all new to Kelleher. “I was very green as an actor. But Pat Kiernan is a very good steward and is great with actors.
“It was a big learning curve. We were in a very big space. You really had to work vocally to fill the room. My character was extremely rebellious, loud and great fun.”
The other memory Kelleher has is of having to eat loads of food during the performances.
“Stage management would prepare things like chicken, peas and mashed potatoes which would be served for dinner in Shirley’s house. Over in her boyfriend’s house, there would be things like steak and kidney pie and beans!
“We had to drink loads of pints of Cidona and then pogo at the Arcadia. They’re my abiding memories.”
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