It’s one of the most daunting experiences in a young person’s life, the day they enter the world of work.
For Denis McSweeney, that day came on October 25, 1971, when he began work at the Ford plant on the Marina in Cork.
“My over-riding impression was one of bustle, activity, huge numbers of men on the move with a purpose, the noise, but most of all the inexorable grind of the production line,” recalls Denis.
“It was like a small town. Everybody was involved in feeding or shipping and selling its produce.”
Denis, who started off a security man and rose up the ladder to become Ford’s Marketing Director in Cork, said: “Ford’s was the hub of Cork. The plant created a demand for skilled people. The impact of the payroll cheque from 8% of the population every week was huge.
“There were great prospects at Ford’s. There was financial help for those wishing to go back to education to further their careers within the plant.”
It wasn’t all work, work, work.
“A wide variety of pastimes and interests developed,” says Denis. “From team sports to drama and music. Tops of the Town was among them. In 1973, I arrived on the stage at Cork Opera House as Julius Caeser atop a chariot!"
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The craic was good too.
“Slagging, nicknames and practical jokes were features of life there,” says Denis.
“I can also recall family trips to the beach at Fountainstown or Youghal in a Model Y, and epic excursions to drag hunts in Kenmare and Liscarroll in a Ford V8 Saloon.”
Bonds were forged.
“Even after retirement, resignation, or unfortunately, redundancy, the bond existed with those who worked there,” says Denis.
Denis was a native of Gurranabraher and recalls his mother’s anxiety 46 years ago when he applied for a job at Ford.
“My mother was very devout. I’m sure she prayed at St Augustine’s Church all day the day I went for my interview!”
The divine intervention worked and Denis adds: “When I got the job she thought, in her mind, that I was made for life. In many ways she was right. Ford shaped me, educated me, directed me and moulded me as a businessman.”
Denis, who grew up in Churchfield on Cork’s northside, recalls taking in the view of the Marina when he was head of marketing.
“We could also see the Innisfallen when she berthed at Penrose Quay. My uncles, Paddy and Jim, worked at the Marina, but like many another, fell into the lure, or the push, to go on the steamer to ‘Dag-num’ as the Corkonians called it.
“Most Cork families had at least one family member ensconced in Essex in the late ’40s and early ’50s,” says Denis. “One week’s wage packet would take them over on the Innisfallen, and if it didn’t work out, another week’s wages would pay the fare back.
“For thousands, taking the Innisfallen to Fishguard and the train from there to Paddington, was as normal as taking the bus to Ballyphehane to work on a new housing estate.
Apart from his father and his uncles, many of his neighbours were Ford men.
“They lived around us at home,” says Denis. “They always seemed to have that little extra in monetary terms.
“A job on the Marina with Ford, or at the nearby Dunlop plant, meant financial security in relative terms, at a time employment in the city was, for the most part, casual.”
Declan Foley worked on the administration side of Ford in Cork for more than 40 years.
Starting off in payroll in 1969, he worked in various departments including data processing and sales, before moving into marketing, where he worked until his retirement in 2011.
“When I joined there in 1969 the factory was in full go,” recalls Declan.
“We produced everything for the Irish market, all the cars. You had Escorts, Cortinas, Zephyrs, Zodiacs and we made all the Transit vans and we manufactured d-series trucks as well so there was a whole gamut.”
“I supposed it’s pretentious to say, but it was like the Apple of Cork. In its day, it was industry-leading in work practices and everything else.
“There was a huge amount of people, about 800 in the factory and about 250 in the clerical side.”
Mr Foleys added that as well as social clubs, employees had access to a company doctor and nurse and even their own monthly newspaper, The Ford News.
“We had our own football pitch across the road from the factory. That was nice to have.
“There was a huge spirit of teamwork and camaraderie. You might be in sales and another might be in finance but it was always one team and certainly there was great camaraderie and support and teamwork there. I suppose that was evident in the fact that very few people ever left to go somewhere else. They always paid well and they had a very good pension fund — thankfully. It’s appreciated.
“It was a great place to work. In later years, I worked in sales and marketing and I was involved in a lot of product launches so I got to do a lot of travelling with the company.”
During his early years at the company, Mr Foley says he noticed it was quite hierarchical, adding that employees referred to their superiors as ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ and used separate canteens.
“It was very stratified,” he recalls. “Moving from the Marina to Boreenmanna Road, I was one of the first people in the office there because I was in distribution at the time.
“Myself and my colleague, Michael Clifford, dealers would ring us looking for cars so we were linked to the computer. So I can remember computers being installed through a hole in the wall in Boreenmanna Road, which was covered with a bit of plastic, and we worked there for the first couple of days with our coats on until the rest of the people moved up.”
The closure of the Marina plant in 1984 was difficult, but Ford has continued to use Cork as its Irish hub to this day.
“It was obviously a traumatic time moving from the Marina, but it was for the best,” says Declan.
“Down the years there were a lot of roll backs as functions were centralised across Europe. A lot of functions were centralised like purchasing and accounting, so a lot of changes but a lot of changes for the better.
“We may have been a smaller team but certainly the likes of demarcation became totally ignored, everybody was on first name terms. There was no Mr or Mrs anymore.”