Five generations of Ford links

County View

County View
John Healy

The remarkable connection between a former Castlebar based, family owned, motor business and the Ford motor company now spans well over a century. And recent times marks the advent of the fifth generation of the Bourke family to continue the link with the US motor giant.
It was in 1910 that Castlebar entrepreneur, Joseph Bourke, became the holder of only the second Ford main dealership in Ireland. An astute and perceptive businessman, Bourke’s business interests at the time ranged from bicycles to saddlery, from milling to electricity generation, of which he was a pioneer. But he could also see the future possibilities of the motor trade, which was still in its infancy, so much so that it would be another four years before Henry Ford would make the monumental decision to locate a car manufacturing plant in Cork.
Even in that decision, there was a strong element of pure chance. Henry Ford was the descendant of Irish emigrants and, hard nosed a businessman as he was, he retained an emotional attachment to the county of his forbears and a desire to do something to help an ailing Irish economy. In spite of rocky times at the start – the outbreak of a world war was not the most propitious time to invest in a new industry – the Ford operation in Cork proved a huge success for the following seventy years. By 1930, it was a behemoth of Irish industry, the biggest car plant in Europe, with a work force of 6,700 employees.
As its fortunes thrived, so too did those of the entities which had hitched themselves to the Ford success. Joseph Bourke and Sons became the best known motor dealers in the west of Ireland. The sons of the founding patriarch, who died in 1919, had taken up where their father had left off; Thomas and Joseph in Castlebar, subsequently disposing of the business to the Casey family, and Chappie with a second Ford dealership in Westport.
The family stuck closely to the Ford formula, each generation in turn maintaining its close commercial links with Cork. The only hiatus came with the decision of Thomas’ son, Micheal de Burca, to follow his artistic leanings to become a major figure in the Irish art world. Reared in the family home at Maryland in Castlebar, the talented Micheal studied at the Metropolitan College of Art prior to appointment as Schools’ Art Inspector and the designer of the national art syllabus for schools. By then an artist of considerable repute, he was appointed Director of the National College of Art and Design in 1942, still practising as an artist , and easily combining the roles of practitioner and administrator. Micheal de Burca spent his final years in Westport, where he died in 1985.
The Bourke separation from the mothership was short lived, however, and in 1964 Micheal’s son, Aodh, found himself back with Ford under what was called the Dealer Succession Programme internship, specialising in sales and marketing, and representing the fourth generation of Bourkes to work with Ford.
Come 1984, the Ford plant in Cork – beset by tariff disadvantage and keen international competition – closed for good after seventy years. At that point, Aodh and his wife, Judith, set up ASA marketing, a specialist provider of marketing services to Ford, to which it remained closely tied.
More recently, the reins of ASA were passed on to their daughters, Michelle and Caroline, and a fifth generation of Bourkes became part of the Ford operation, more than a century after their great, great grandfather put his faith in a new fangled, untested invention being promoted in the United States by the emigrant son of Cork parents.