The position of Henry Ford within the Cork cosmos is huge: almost every family is in some way connected with his motor company.
I spent half my youth at my Auntie Nora and Uncle Paddy’s cottage, in the woods at Ravensdale between the chapel and the ‘New’ (Carrigaline) Road.
One night, there was a fierce party there. The ‘Dagenham Yanks’ were home and there was corned beef and pressed tongue sandwiches and bottles of porter in timber crates with round towers on the labels.
I had two uncles among them and both bore the same nickname, though I could never get a satisfactory answer why Uncles Billy and Jack were both called ‘Rock’ Lawton.
Apparently, Billy had a dog called Rock and the name followed both him and his brother to Dagenham.
Both were stalwart Ford employees; Jack raised a family in Dagenham, Romford or one of these Essex conurbations. Billy stayed single. Hard cases they were; fond of porter, Old Holborn and Golden Virginia, and conversing about home; but exceptionally quiet men when they were sober.
My father was at Nora’s that night and was a sweet singer. Though a Dagenham Yank too, he was mercifully released to us on golden reprieves if the furniture trade picked up in Cork, for he was a notable wood machinist and a great man on the spindle.
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That night, I heard The Bold Thady Quill for the first time. Both Uncle Rocks kept giving me lovely presents like badges advertising Courage beer, Ford pencils with white caps on top, Ford badges with Model Ts, and a few bob, of course.
Whenever I showed signs of boozing in later years, my mother would admonish me by referring to Billy’s fondness for the tavern: “You’ll wind up like uncle Billy who used to be carried home in a wheelbarrow.”
But Rock’s friends often told me he only drank when home out of nostalgia and was mostly ‘on the tack’ in Dagenham and that he used to hear mass every morning.
Two of the main workers at Dagenham were Mick and Joe Healy, from Blarney Street, and t’was said the Cork accent pre-dominated on the factory floor.
Ford processed passports, liaised with labour exchanges in Ireland and the UK, and arranged boarding tickets for the Innisfallen.
Da told me a good one about Dagenham.
The Essex marshes were quite adjacent to the Ford plant and ’twas there the Cork crowd transposed their most unique cultural motif: bowlplaying.
The locals soon got used to the scores and both communities became wonderfully interwoven.
One time a bowl got lost in the ditch and Da told me he picked up a stick (as he thought!) to beat the brambles and find it. The stick came alive in his hand for what was he after picking up but a snake! Truly, these émigrés were no longer in Ireland.
Da’s lodging house tales are essential tracts of my 1950s and ’60s lore. Cusack, his landlord, had a fierce influence over him; my father saw him as a philosopher whose decrees and depositions on any subject were final and irrefutable. Thus, we were well used to Da’s phrase: “As Cusack says...!”
Maura Cusack, the landlord’s daughter, came to visit us often in Douglas, a gorgeous girl who looked on Da as a second father.
At the end of a lovely hot summer in the late 1950s, I noticed my Dad a bit quiet in himself sitting on the step smoking a fag outside the front door.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” I asked:
“Ah, I’ll have to go back to Dagenham, son,” he said, “the trade is gone very bad again.” It took the sun away. I looked at him and he looked at me and I didn’t want him to leave. Soon after, Cork Airport opened and he never took that lonesome Innisfallen again.
Trade picked up too and one day Ma sent a telegram to Romford — “Come home immediately, wood machinist wanted at Buckleys.”
He got the job and we got him back forever.
WHEN tractor manufacturing in Cork was terminated in the early 1930s, and transferred to Ford’s new plant in Dagenham, thousands of Irish people emigrated there.
It was the beginning of a link between the two places which remains strong to this day.
Many Marina workers had the expertise required and the Ford ethos to work on the production line, while others desperately needed employment.
For all the Cork workers, it meant a voyage on the Innisfallen emigration ship from the city, passing by the Ford plant.
Even when full work returned to the Cork plant, the bond between the city and Dagenham remained.
Many Cork emigrants who returned home annually for a holiday, with their trendy clothes and traces of English accents, were affectionately known as ‘Dagenham Yanks’.