In the annals of Irish history, it was a year that became known as ‘Black ’47’.
As the Irish potato harvest was decimated yet again, hunger and death stalked the land, and in West Cork, conditions were as bad as anywhere on the island.
By 1847, many Irish people had a stark choice at the nadir of the Great Famine: Do or die — emigrate or starve.
That year, John Ford and his son, William, decided to leave their home in Ballinascarthy, a few miles north of Clonakilty, to seek a better life in the ‘New World’.
They could never have dreamed that William’s son, Henry Ford, would grow up to establish one of the greatest business empires the world has ever known, that his inventions and production methods would change the lives of millions, and that the effects of his genius would be felt all over the world — not least in Cork, the land of his ancestors.
Henry was extremely proud of his roots. His family in Cork were descended from Protestant settlers, who went to Munster when Queen Elizabeth I granted 600,000 acres of confiscated land to English gentlemen at the end of the 16th century.
By the 1830s, John’s three brothers had emigrated from the family home on the Madame Estate near Ballinascarthy.
In 1847, John decided to up- root and follow in his siblings’ footsteps, taking his son William with him on an arduous trek from Queenstown (now known as Cobh) to Quebec.
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He eventually arrived in Michigan and in 1848, John bought an eight-acre farm in Dearborn from a fellow Corkman called Henry Maybury.
William worked on his father’s farm and as a hired farm hand and carpenter. One of his occasional employers was Patrick Ahern, who originally hailed from Fair Lane in Cork city, and, William took a liking to Patrick’s foster daughter, Mary. She was 13 years younger than him and had been born Mary Litogot in 1839.
William and Mary married on April 21, 1861. On July 30, 1863, a son was born on a farm near Greenfield, Michigan, and named Henry.
The Fords lived in the same house as Patrick and his wife Margaret. Henry thus grew up in a typical hard-working, agricultural environment. He was 13 when his mother died after childbirth.
Henry was close to his grandfather, Patrick Ahern, who came from Fair Lane in Cork, and would later name his house in Dearborn ‘Fair Lane’.
Henry’s father, William, was a quiet, hard-working man. He expected his eldest son to take an interest in the farm. However, Henry, a boy with vision, did not take to it.
At 16, he left home to be a machinist’s apprentice in Detroit, which would become known as Motor City.
In 1888, Henry married Clara Jane Bryant and the couple had a son, Edsel Bryant Ford, on November 6, 1893.
Henry strived to advance his career and became an engineer at the Edison Illumination Company in Detroit. In 1896, He built his first car, shortly after it had been invented by Germans Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler.
Ford’s Quadricycle Runabout had a four horse power engine, four bicycle wheels and could reach 20mph. The contraption, which looked like a pram, caused a sensation in Detroit and he sold it for $200 to finance his second car.
Henry left his engineering job and founded Detroit Automobile Co, where he designed and built racing cars, in one of which he set a world speed record of more than 90mph.
The publicity helped him earn the financial support to found Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903, with 11 business associates and $28,000 in cash. The earliest record of a shipment, a Model A, was on July 20, to a physician.
Perhaps Ford’s single greatest contribution to the economic landscape was the moving assembly line. First implemented in the US in 1913, this allowed workers to stay in one place and perform the same task repeatedly on multiple vehicles as they passed.
The innovation was tremendously efficient, helping the company surpass the production levels of competitors — and making cars more affordable.
In 1903, the company began using the first 19 letters of the alphabet to name new cars and in 1908, the Model T was born.
Nineteen years and 15 million Model Ts later, Ford Motor Company was a giant industrial behemoth that spanned the globe.
The first decade of the 20th century is known in Britain and Ireland as the Edwardian era, after the King who reigned until 1910. In America, it is referred to as the Brass Era, because of the widespread use of brass in the vehicles of the time.
For Henry, it was a case of where there’s brass, there’s brass: He was one of America’s first billionaires and ranks among the richest men who ever lived. His business was an unstoppable juggernaut.
Despite his vast wealth, he lived modestly and showed an affinity with his workers by setting a $5-a-day minimum wage and an eight-hour, five day week — a legacy which spread worldwide and lasts to this day.
In 1907, the first Ford cars ever to be seen in Ireland went on display at the Irish Motor Show in the Royal Dublin Society’s grounds. A Mr R. W. Archer signed the first Irish sales contract for Ford at the show.
The car was an unknown quantity and Archer found it difficult to make sales. However, proof of its worth came when the Model N won a gold medal in the 1907 and 1908 Irish Reliability Trials.
In 1912, Henry visited Cork for the first time, and the following year saw 600 Fords sold in Ireland. It was an expanding market and Henry made the momentous decision to open a European factory in Cork city.
For all his success, Henry was a simple man who lived a secluded life. He was a popular figure through his pacifism, his generous treatment of his workers, his love of rural life and perhaps most of all, his philanthropy. The Henry Ford Foundation is one of the world’s wealthiest such institutions.
Wiry and thin, Henry neither drank nor smoked. He lived to be 84 on a diet of nuts, raw vegetables and soya-bean milk and died on April 7, 1947 — 30 years almost to the day since he registered his Irish company.