A life on the line of Ford's Dagenham plant for Irish workers

Ford was once a pillar of employment in Cork but their plant in Dagenham was also huge employer for generations of Irish in England. With our economic relationship facing the threat of Brexit, Robert Mulhern spoke to retired workers about an industrial link that uprooted Irish villages and planted them in what was then Europe’s biggest factory

A life on the line of Ford's Dagenham plant for Irish workers

O’GRADY’S Irish bar rests on the High Road in Seven Kings near Dagenham in east London.

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, Ilford and nearby Romford were powered by the car manufacturing plant which beat a 24/7 industrial symphony, spitting out more than 10 million vehicles, from the Zodiac to the Cortina, and the Capri.

WORKING THE LINE

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 his bedside manner was better suited to an automotive production line.

He is 77 now, lives in nearby Chadwell Heath and his face creases a smile of memories when he recalls life on ‘the line’. He sits down in the afternoon quiet of O’Grady’s and explains 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, built right outside the plant especially called The Mill House.

“It was going day and night.”

The industrial landscape has changed markedly since Gerry left and with the debate over Britain’s European future now raging, the rules governing the mass movement of labour across the continent could well change too.

Against that backdrop, Gerry reflects on the social impact of an economic conveyor belt that ran from Cork to Dagenham.

“I worked there 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 wasn’t many Irish women down there no, the odd one, the women from the East End kind of had it sewn up.

“My uncle Joe O’Connell worked for Dunlops in Cork and when that closed in 1983, I told him to come here to Fords. 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.

“They stopped building the cars eventually and the cars started coming in from Holland.

“My last year was 2000.”

DROMINA CONNECTIONS

Johnny Dwyer from Tipperary emigrated in 1965.

Today he works as a contractor in Selfridges on Oxford Street. Now in his sixty-sixth year, he used to work as a painter in Fords and hurl with Tomás McCurtain’s GAA club at the weekend. The team was 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 during the 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 McCurtain’s club.

“If you were a good hurler and footballer, you’d get the work.

“One time, 13 players out of the 15 on the team were painters working in Fords. There was an awful lot from Dromina in Cork and we’d a great affinity because Timmy O’Sullivan, who was 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 and slap on a bit of paint.”

Tim O’Sullivan died in 2014 at the age of 83. But his name is still mentioned around this industrial wasteland because he’s 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.

And his influence was so great that he persuaded the Cork hurling team and Christy Ring to travel over and play a challenge against Tomás McCurtain’s in the 1960s.

“There was about 40,000 working out on the plant then and it felt like 80 per cent were Irish,” said Dwyer. “I don’t ever remember any problems with the English people who worked down there.

“There was never a problem when more people came from Cork after the factory closed there either.

“When the plant started to wind down it was a gradual thing. It was a big loss for the contractors but they started to leak into construction.

“I remember Bertie Ahern coming to present a set of jerseys to the club which was sponsored by a contractor that Bertie was friends with at the time. He came down to our field in Dagenham and presented jerseys.”

The story of Fords in Dagenham is part of the Irish story of more recent emigrants like former London hurler Martin Finn, who followed in the footsteps of his father and made good on Dromina connections in London.

FINDING SALVATION

Ambrose Gordon from Killimor in Galway recalled hundreds of Irish finding salvation indoors in the Ford plant in Langley where he worked during the harsh winter of 1963.

Dwyer and O’Connell and thousands of others made good on life in Dagenham beside thousands of others who wouldn’t have had the same opportunity in Ireland.

The fabric of Irish Dagenham has worn a bit in recent years and the stitching between east London and Cork has loosened, but the men’s lament is for Europe’s weakening embrace and a less bureaucratic past.

“There were no concerns like there are now,” said Dwyer.

“Tens of thousands of people came over to work in Fords, there was no barriers to employment. You just came got the work and got the head down.”

While O’Connell added: “There couldn’t have been another factory in Europe that gave jobs to as many Irish people.”

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