My journey back in time: Miriam Nyhan Grey on her passion for Ford

Author of the definitive book Are You Still Below?, Miriam Nyhan Grey writes a personal article about her passion for Ford.

Miriam Nyhan Grey

In the year 2000, I had embarked on a research masters in UCC, having recently completed my BA in History and An Léann Dúchais.

The daughter of a West Cork man who has been an ‘expat’ in County Wicklow since the 1970s, I was interested in researching something on the social and cultural history of Cork.

On the advice of my advisor, the historian Andy Bielenberg, I had decided to focus on working-class housing in Cork in the decades around the turn of the 20th century. But a chance conversation would change all that.

At a social gathering, I had the good fortune to discuss my research with Denis McSweeney (‘Mac’), who was the Marketing Director of Henry Ford & Son Ltd.

Denis was born a scholar and missed his calling for the academy. When he heard what I was interested in, he suggested I take a look at the photographs that had been commissioned by Fords in the run up to the founding of the Marina plant and in that moment the direction of my research changed.

I had — still have — little or no interest in cars, although I do like to drive. The world of cars and manufacturing plants was foreign to me.

But, as I mention in my book Are You Still Below? The Ford Marina Plant, Cork, 1917-1984 (right), there were aspects of the story that drew me in and are really bookended by the opening and the closing of the Marina plant.

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The first pertained to how and why Henry Ford chose Cork as the location of his first purpose-built Ford location outside of North America. I knew I wanted to learn more about that and try to understand it more.

My father grew up eleven miles from where Henry Ford’s father left from in the 1840s. I know what it is like to grow up somewhere and feel a deep ancestral and emotional connection to another place. I wanted to know more about this remarkable, mercurial and bizarre man.

The second topic that intrigued me was the memory of the 1984 closure of the Marina plant. For Corkonians, the memories of that were still raw in 2000 and I wanted to understand that more, and that brought me to the desire to use oral histories.

In my journey through UCC, I had been exposed to the power of an interview in capturing a sense of the past — or at least how the past can be viewed from any given present.

I had interviewed Val O’Connor about the customs and culture surrounding undertaking and I had interviewed another man about his recollection of Jack Lynch’s state funeral.

I asked ‘Mac’ what he thought about my attempting to interview former Ford workers. He was nothing but encouraging and an archive project began.

Having officially changed my thesis topic to an exploration of the social history of the Ford plant, I spent the next four years researching, using more traditional historical sources and recording interviews.

It was so rewarding. There are few things as humbling and important than sitting down with people and asking them to tell their story in their own words.

Of course, I was primarily interested in how their lives had been impacted by their time with Henry Ford & Son Ltd, but in the process I got to hear about many other aspects of their lives.

I learned about their childhoods and their marriages and their families and I heard about ‘Dagenham Yanks’. I recorded interviews with Ford workers who would recall experiences of the Normandy landings, the RAF, and being involved in the evacuation of British Palestine.

I got to know a man who was employed in the Marina as a teenager after his father had been killed in an accident in England during World War II.

My Ford interviews underscore how oral history allows us to gain richer insights into the past, notwithstanding the limitations of memory as a means of reporting on historical ‘facts’.

My Ford research whetted my interest in the migrant experience, leading me to doctoral research (and many more interviews) with Irish migrants in London and New York.

Now, I work at New York University’s Center for Irish and Irish-American Studies, Glucksman Ireland House. We spend our time researching and teaching about the Irish diasporic experience.

Henry Ford’s legacy in Cork provides us with a rich example of how the Irish in the diaspora have shaped Ireland in not insignificant ways.

Ford is a massive figure in the pantheon of Irish Americans who have sought to give back to the homeland.

It didn’t start with him, nor thankfully, has it ended with him. But by his example of the Cork experiment, now one hundred years old, we are reminded of the proverb of “briseann an dúchas trí shúile an chait”.

- Miriam Nyhan Grey is the Associate Director and Director of Graduate Studies at New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House.

She is the author of Are You Still Below? The Ford Marina Plant Cork, 1917-1984 (The Collins Press, 2007).

She recently edited a collection of essays on the American role in 1916 entitled Ireland’s Allies: America and the 1916 Easter Rising, (UCD Press, 2016).

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