Review of Liam Cullinane’s Working in Cork by Deirdre Foley

Review of Liam Cullinane, Working in Cork

Deirdre Foley

By placing a concerted ‘emphasis on workers and the workplace’ (p. 3), their lived experiences and belief systems, this book makes a major contribution to our knowledge of the contours of everyday Irish working life during the twentieth century. A combined use of gender, labour and economics as modes of analysis has produced an important and vibrant impression of the experience of industrial life in this period. The author draws upon his own oral history study as well as three pre-existing collections, indicating the growing vibrancy of the field in Ireland. It is of great value to both contemporary and future historians that Cullinane has deposited his interviews with the Cork Folklore Project. Cullinane’s analysis of popular memory as a corollary to the economic fortunes of the three factories studied for this project is interesting. While Ford and Sunbeam Wolsey have generally been recalled with nostalgic positivity, the darker history of Irish Steel in terms of redundancies, workplace injuries and even deaths rendered a ‘bittersweet’ legacy for the company in terms of how it was regarded in Cork and beyond. In outlining the fortunes of each plant, and explaining why all three ceased operations, the reader is offered a glimpse at a bygone era of the Irish economy prior to the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1965.

The location of the Ford plant in Cork from 1917 was convenient in terms of geography, but was otherwise motivated by ‘sentimental, patriotic and philanthropic’ urges, owing to Henry Ford’s Irish roots (p. 19). Despite shaky beginnings, when Ford closed in 1984 it was Ireland’s ‘last major automobile assembler’ (p. 30). Ford’s system of welfare capitalism in Cork, while never as far-reaching as that implemented by the company in America, was second only to Guinness in Ireland. Amenities for Ford employees included sports and leisure clubs, insurance and healthcare. While such aspects of employment were unprecedented in the early twentieth century, Cullinane emphasises that they were ultimately ‘a means of social control’ (p. 81). Ford paid well, but work at the plant was arduous, strict and precarious, particularly in the immediate period after 1929, and there was also a distinct ‘Fordist disdain for trade unions’(p. 84, 89). Later, during a lull in production at the Cork plant during the Emergency, the shortage of male labour in Britain created a safety valve as Haulbowline workers migrated steadily to Dagenham and Leamington Spa throughout the war. This pattern established itself to the point that an annual hurling match occurred between workers at Cork and Dagenham. In October 1949 Ford finally recognised the unionisation of its employees, though Cullinane asserts that this occurred only after ‘aggressive strike action’ (p. 95).

Sunbeam Wolsey differed from Ford in that it was an indigenous firm. Arising from the prevalence of the textile trade in Cork city, the factory was giant, employing almost two thousand people – more than 50 per cent female – at its height. Despite difficulties adjusting to the ‘sudden shock’ of free trade and EEC accession, the plant, a cornerstone of the Cork economy, survived until 1990. Sunbeam Wolsey is classified by Cullinane as a firm that espoused ‘industrial paternalism’, where ‘paternalist employers attempt to create the feeling of a community of interest between workers and management’ (p. 113). Unlike Ford, which habitually refused to hire more than one member of the same immediate family, ‘kin recruitment’ was commonplace at Sunbeam. The popular owner of Sunbeam, William Dwyer, propagated a particularly Catholic style of paternalism in the spirit of Quadragesimo Anno, as seen with the introduction of a Social Services Society in the company with the blessing of the local bishop. After the introduction of free trade, Sunbeam was in a less favourable position; similarly, its organized workers had less bargaining power. The majority of redundancies from Sunbeam occurred in 1990.

Irish Steel was state-controlled and differed from other Irish semi-state bodies in that it was a manufacturer with few direct connections to the agricultural sector. Its location on the island of Haulbowline signaled the shaky beginning of a phase of prosperity for the closest town, Cobh, and indeed the author demonstrates that this was a decision taken deliberately by Lemass to compensate for the decline experienced after the handover of the Treaty ports in 1938. After dubious beginnings owing to the Second World War, the company went into receivership and was then rescued by the State in 1947. An upward trajectory ensued, peaking with the building boom of the sixties. Working at Irish Steel was arduous and dangerous; a fact proven by the author through rigorous comparative statistical analysis. Accidents and fatalities were common (there were five deaths at the plant in the 1970s alone), and very few health and safety measures or inspections existed for most of the period in which the plant was operational. Workers largely accepted the risk, the author attributes at least a degree of this acceptance to ‘masculinist work cultures’ and ‘breadwinner ideology’ (p. 153). By international standards, Irish Steel was uncompetitive and consequently was affected by Ireland’s entry to the EEC as well as the 1973 global oil crisis. Unsurprisingly then, the most memorable labour strike occurred at the plant in 1977. Despite an extensive and expensive programme of modernisation, the firm was even less fortunate in the 1980s. After passing into private hands in 1995, the production plant on Haulbowline eventually ceased production in 2001.

The final two chapters examine working life thematically; setting the scene for low or sporadic employment, frequent emigration and a ‘passive acceptance’ of these conditions (p. 178). The relatively good positions and pay provided by the three firms at the heart of Cullinane’s study are given further context by the fact that there was for quite some time ‘a very limited labour market for young working-class people’ in Cork (p. 177). For those that did have the offer of a job, this often meant a choice between full-time work and education prior to the introduction of free secondary school education in the late 1960s. The author’s analysis is particularly commendable for its explicit recognition of a ‘rigidly maintained class system’ as opposed to a simplistic narrative of poverty versus wealth (p. 185). This is seen even in the demarcation of different categories of staff at Irish Steel social events. Similarly, for women in particular, Cullinane observes that there was a discernible difference in status between clerical and manual work, despite only a nominal difference in wages.

While it has been widely established that women’s status in the workplace has historically been lowly and precarious, Cullinane’s study offers glimpses of these experiences in technicolour. He observes that ‘a patriarchal familial ideology … was internalized by the narrators and is reflected in their oral testimony’ (p. 196). Among some female respondents, both criticism and nostalgia for these values was apparent. For men, pride in the breadwinner role they had largely fulfilled remained intact even at the remove of many years. Workers interviewed by Cullinane expressed pride at their ability to provide so that their wives could remain at home. While high wages at Ford were a draw for many, for some time male breadwinners were considered as the most appropriate recruits for the industry. Women workers nevertheless made valuable contributions to their households; it is noted that young women living at home habitually ‘handed up’ their entire pay packets more frequently than their male counterparts (p. 205). While unequal pay and the general ‘devaluing of paid female labour’ is acknowledged in this book, it is not fully interrogated with regard to women’s limited capability to act as breadwinners, and with regard to how entrenched this system was (p. 205). It would have been interesting to ascertain if any of the female workers in Sunbeam assumed this function, and how this was managed on such a low wage. The author’s treatment of masculinity is exemplary. The full integration of gender as a tool of analysis requires the interrogation of male as well as female experiences; gender history has unfortunately too often become shorthand for women’s history. 

It is evident that this project was a labour of love for Cullinane, who without a doubt fulfills his aim to ‘balance the need for objective, scholarly investigation with a respect for the significance of each workplace for both the narrators themselves and the communities to which they belong’ (p. 10). The sense of community and camaraderie shared by many employees of the firms is evoked in a balanced manner, with equal due diligence for union activity and everyday workplace resistance. The layout is well-considered, first offering us a condensed history of each plant and its economic fortunes, next progressing to the experience of working at each firm, and finally a detailed analysis of the experience of workers at all three plants through the respective lenses of labour, migration and gender. This book is an important contribution to our knowledge of the Irish workplace. It embodies a careful and sensitive reconstruction of the importance of the workplace within the quotidian lives of ordinary people, and the consequent deep trauma of the deindustrialization of Cork. 

Dr Deirdre Foley is a historian of modern Ireland with a particular interest in birth control and the legal status of women in 20th century Ireland. She is the current Roy Foster Irish Government Research Fellow at Hertford College, University of Oxford.