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At a time when Ireland's industry was on its knees, we became surprising trailblazers in car making

A new book is highlighting a “forgotten” story of Ireland’s journey to modernity.

Image from the launch of the new book
Image from the launch of the new book

WHEN IRELAND GAINED its independence, its economy was largely based on agriculture at first but a savvy decision in the 1930s gave a surprise boost to the car making industry, and helped to support thousands of jobs in the decades that followed.

Bob Montgomery, curator at the Royal Irish Automobile Club archive, has written a new boom on one of the little-known ways Ireland made its journey to a modern economy by supporting the car assembly business.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Montgomery said that a recent gather of industry figures had yielded “so many stories, so many anecdotes and so much history” that it couldn’t become lost, which led to him writing Motor Assembly in Ireland.

‘Within a week he said yes, let’s do it’

During the industrial revolution, the main location for this on the island of Ireland was Belfast. The Irish Free State, however, began with an economy based almost entirely on agriculture, with pockets of industry and tourism present.

Future Taoiseach Seán Lemass was minister for industry and commerce at the beginning of the 1930s.

Montgomery said: “In 1933, we were in an economic war with Britain. There were tariffs put on British cars, and the motoring industry was in the tubes here.”

When businessman Frederick M Summerfield came to him with the idea of kickstarting industry and having Ireland catch up with other nations by assembling motor cars, Lemass acted quickly.

“In return, Summerfield asked for tax concessions,” Montgomery said. “Lemass, to his external credit, did it. Within a week, he came back and said yes we will do it.”

Up until this point, car assembly had been done primarily in more industrialised countries, with the US being the biggest producers. There were some car manufacturing facilities in Ireland but the plan was to make this a whole new industry.

Within six months of the policies introduced by Lemass at the end of 1933, there were 13 assembly plants operating in Ireland, with the necessary component suppliers.

This led to the 13 assembly plants importing cars in completely knocked down form, where the key components were taken from the manufacturing line and shipped to Ireland for assembly.

‘An essential stepping stone’

Montgomery said: “It was a success right away. It became an essential stepping stone from an agricultural to an industrial economy.

The Industrial Revolution had passed us by. We had nothing. That’s where the assembly industry was so important. The components made were things that had never been made in Ireland before.

He described it as the “true start of the light manufacturing industry in Ireland”, which continued right up until 1984 when the last cars were produced a decade after we joined the EU.

In that time over 53 different kinds of cars were assembled in Ireland, including Jaguar, Dodge, Chrysler, Citroën, Adler, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Peugeot, Chevrolet. And the legacy of that lives on, according to Montgomery.

He said: “Although assembly finally came to a stop in 1984, there are a large number of component manufacturers today. Some of the biggest car brands still buy Irish made components.

It’s very much a forgotten element in our march towards a modern Ireland, and it was important we didn’t let these stories be lost forever. I’m just glad the book has gotten a good response so far.

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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