How UCC made Henry Ford a lawyer

Attempts to give Henry Ford the Freedom of Cork failed to materialise, but Thomas Grimes reveals how UCC finally honoured the man after some persuasion.

The coup of opening the Ford factory on the Marina in Cork had involved a great deal of teamwork between the company and the Cork Industrial Development Association, the Harbour Board, and even British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

However, later wrangles with Cork Corporation over the lease somewhat marred the relationship of the City Fathers with Henry Ford and Marina management.

In a bid to redress this, in May, 1924, Lord Mayor of Cork Seán French — who would go on to serve six terms in office — wrote to Henry in an attempt to build bridges.

He informed him that Cork Corporation had decided unanimously to confer the freedom of the city of Cork on him — “the highest honour that it is in our power to bestow”.

However, the honour never materialised.

Indeed, between 1920, when Archbishop of Adelaide Robert Spence was conferred with the freedom of Cork, and 1948, when President Seán T. O’Kelly was given the honour, only one person received the freedom of the city — Paschal Robinson, papal nuncio to Ireland, in 1930.

A similar attempt by UCC to honour Henry Ford soon after proved a fraught process.

In November, 1926, the Irish Managing Director E.L Clarke wrote to Henry’s secretary, Ernest G. Liebold, stating that Professor P. J. Merriman, President of Cork National University (now UCC), had phoned him to say the senate of his university had decided to confer on the motor boss the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

At the same time, Professor Merriman wrote directly to Henry, explaining that the honorary degree “reflected the appreciation of the great advantage conferred on the city of Cork by Ford in locating his factory there”.

However, Liebold replied: “Mr Ford has never followed the profession of a lawyer and has no legal talent, he feels he is not qualified to accept such a degree.”

This rebuff suggested that either Henry or his secretary were unfamiliar with the merit of an honorary degree — or perhaps this was a sarcastic dismissal of such unearned degrees. After all, Henry was a self-educated man who often hired practical staff like himself with little formal education.

Undeterred, Professor Merriman responded, explaining that the degree is offered “to persons of notable achievement in any sphere of activity who have promoted the good of humanity”.

He pointed out that its acceptance did not imply “that the holder of the degree is connected in any way with the law, either as a pursuit or as a study”.

Meanwhile, Clarke in Cork foresaw a public relations faux pas in the offing and wrote to Liebold: “We are sure that his acceptance will be appreciated and looked upon as an indication that Mr Ford has an interest in the progress and development of the country, whereas if the degree is declined (no matter how good the grounds) it might very easily be misconstrued, especially if the matter is taken up by the press.”

He was right. A few months later, the honour had still not been accepted and the New York Times reported that he had been rebuked by the Council of the National University of Ireland for not accepting the honorary degree — Dennis O’Connor, a member of the Council, had said Ford apparently did not consider it worth his while to inform the university if he would accept the degree.

Clarke cabled W. J. Cameron, editor of Ford’s paper, the Dearborn Independent, and a confidante of Henry, advising that he communicate with the registrar of the National University and accept the degree.

Finally, on March 17, 1927, word came from Liebold that Henry had “fully consented to accept this degree which he now understands to be conferred merely as an honor and not as a certification as a lawyer”.

F. H. Wilber, registrar of the National University of Ireland, invited Ford to the conferring, to be held in the Senate room on July 15, 1927.

Liebold replied that Henry would be unable to attend.

After the conferring, Wilber wrote that he was sending “the Testimonium of the Degree of Doctor of laws recently conferred on you”.

Ford wrote in response: “I will always consider it of particular value, coming as it does from the community where my father lived.”

The manner of awarding the degree later came in for criticism by Merriman’s successor as UCC President, Professor Alfred O’Rahilly, who expressed surprise at “the brutally unceremonious way in which the National University posted its honorary degree to Mr Ford.”

He said he and another Corkman, Professor Smiddy, were in the US and could have presented it in person.

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