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Working in Cork: Everyday life in Irish Steel, Sunbeam-Wolsey and the Ford Marina Plant, 1917-2001

In the twentieth century, three iconic factories dominated the industrial landscape of Cork; Sunbeam Wolsey, Irish Steel, and the Ford Marina Plant. Though all are now closed, their legacy lives on in the memories of the thousands of men and women who worked within their walls. A new book by Cork-based historian Liam Cullinane, Working in Cork: Everyday Life in Irish Steel, Sunbeam Wolsey and the Ford Marina Plant, 1917-2001 tells the story of these factories and their workers. Based on dozens of interviews with former employees, as well as extensive archival research, the book examines the history of industrial Cork from the perspective of ordinary people.
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There will undoubtedly be a great deal of interest in the stories of these workers. In a city that was often blighted by unemployment, Ford, Sunbeam and Irish Steel were industrial giants that provided secure and (relatively) well-paid work for innumerable people across the city and county. At a time when the average Irish manufacturer employed fewer than twenty people, these factories possessed workforces measured in the hundreds and thousands. The Marina Plant, for a brief moment in the late 1920s, employed nearly 7,000 workers, making it (for a while at least) the largest Ford facility outside of the United States.

Given their economic importance, it is no surprise that the loss of these companies had a devastating impact on Cork. Ford ended its assembly operations in 1984, Sunbeam Wolsey collapsed in 1990 after a decade of decline, and Irish Steel shut its doors in 2001. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s the city became an unemployment blackspot.

But the factories had a meaning that went beyond work. They were also places where friendships were built, romances blossomed and common interests were pursued. Each factory had a rich associational culture. Whether angling, golf, chess, basketball, singing, the Irish language, football or hurling, there was a club or society for it. A multitude of nicknames also echoed across the factory floor: ‘Beat the World’, ‘Jerry the Cock’, ‘Baths of Iron’, ‘Kill the Rabbit’, ‘Stab the Rashers’ and one man known simply as ‘The Handsome Welder’. In the words of one former Ford worker, ‘twas a little community and I’d run back there in the morning if I could’.

Working in Cork is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the social history of Cork and modern Ireland.

Liam Cullinane is a historian from Leamlara in East Cork

9781782054139 | €39 £35| Hardback |234 x 156mm| 320 pages  | 9 illustrations Cork University Press