O’Grady’s Irish bar rests on the High Road in Seven Kings near Dagenham.
Situated between a sweep of takeaways and convenience stores, the pub is part of a low-rise hinterland that housed many of the 50,000 people who worked in the nearby Ford Motor Company in the 1950s.
Places like Seven Kings were powered by the car manufacturing plant that beat a 24/7 industrial symphony, spitting out more than 10 million vehicles, from the Zodiac to the Cortina, and the Capri.
Gerry O’Connell, from Ballycotton in Cork, used to work on such models in the sprawling Dagenham plant. He came to London in 1959 to take a job as a nurse, only to discover he was better suited to an automotive production line.
When I spoke to him last year, he was 77 and living in nearby Chadwell Heath. His face creased a smile when he recalled life on ‘the line’. He sat in the afternoon quiet of O’Grady’s and explained that Dagenham and Cork rolled out cars by the thousand.
On a lap to collect glasses, James, the barman from Laois, stops by to tick off other names. “What about Mickey Boylan, Johnny Murphy and Bill Harte?” he said. “The only other lads around now! “They were up in Dagenham all their lives.
“I remember there used to be a pub down there, right outside the plant, called The Mill House. It was going day and night.”
Gerry reflects on the social impact of an economic conveyor belt that ran from Cork to Dagenham.
“I worked in Dagenham for 39 years,” he said. “I’d been working in a hotel in Youghal and within a few months they were advertising in the paper for men to work in the car plant. I went in like a shot but the first day I nearly jacked the job at least two or three times.
“I was putting on the doors and doing the half-shaft axles. We had to do it on the floor with the spot welding and you had to be quick, because the line was going so fast. Otherwise you wouldn’t have held a job.
“The foundry was completely Irish as much as I could see. They worked hard in there and the heat was incredible.
“It was very unionised and I remember the women on the sewing machines going on strike because of low pay. They were supported by the Irish workers. There weren’t many Irish women down there, the odd one, the women from the East End kind of had it sewn up.
“My uncle Joe O’Connell worked for Dunlop in Cork and when that closed in 1983, I told him to come here to Ford. He used to go over and back because the kids and the family were in Ireland. When he’d go home in the summer there would always be a kid the next year,” he laughed.
“Most of Dagenham was Irish that time. A lot are dead, some went home but there would be a lot of third generation Irish here still, plenty of Sullivans and Kellys about.
“There couldn’t have been another factory in Europe that gave jobs to as many Irish people.
“They stopped building the cars eventually and the cars started coming in from Holland. My last year was 2000.”
Johnny Dwyer emigrated from Tipperary in 1965. He used to work as a painter in Ford and hurl with Tomás McCurtain’s GAA club, made up of painters from the factory floor.
“The first time I worked there was 1969,” he said. “I used to work there during shut-downs in summer. You had all different contractors going in and I was working as a painting contractor, painting steel and a lot of work in the foundry area, a tough old place to work.
“There was a fella from Offaly called Bill Flanagan. He was a supervisor of the painting contractors. His rule for hiring was you had to play for the Tomás MacCurtain’s club. If you were a good hurler and footballer, you’d get the work.
“One time, 13 of the 15 on the team were painters in Fords. There was an awful lot from Dromina in Cork and we’d a great affinity because Timmy O’Sullivan, one of the main contractors, was from there.
“A lot of fellas weren’t really qualified starting off but they picked it up. Industrial painting is easy enough, you just put a brush in a fella’s hand.”
Tim O’Sullivan died in 2014 aged 83, but his name is still mentioned here, credited with employing hundreds of Irish emigrants and bringing half his village to work in Dagenham. He famously left once to attend a business meeting with Henry Ford in Detroit.
Typically, he instructed workers leaving Dromina for Dagenham to bring their hurls.
His influence was so great that he persuaded the Cork hurling team and Christy Ring to travel over and play a challenge against Tomás MacCurtain’s in the 1960s.
“There were about 40,000 working out on the plant then and it felt like 80% were Irish,” said Dwyer.
“I don’t ever remember problems with the English who worked there. There was never a problem when more people came from Cork after the factory closed there either.”
Vehicle assembly ceased at Ford Dagenham in 2002, but it continues life as a major production site.
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