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Ford's Ancestral Trail in Ireland Growing Colder

June 19, 1988|CLAUDIA R. CAPOS | Capos is a free-lance writer living in Ann Arbor, Mich.

BALLINASCARTY, Ireland — There is a secret buried beneath the brambles here that few visitors ever discover.

Most drive through this rural village in southwestern Ireland without realizing they have passed one of the most historic places in the country: the Ford homestead.

The ancestors of automotive pioneer Henry Ford were poor farmers who came to Ireland from England and lived in a simple stone cottage in Ballinascarty during the first half of the 19th Century.

In the mid-1800s, they migrated to nearby Cork City and then crossed the Atlantic Ocean, landing in Canada. They settled permanently in Dearborn, Mich., where Henry Ford was born in 1863 and eventually launched his automotive empire.

Over the years, the Ford name has become strongly linked with America, and its ancestral trail in Ireland has grown cold.

With the death of Henry Ford's grandson, Henry Ford II, in September, the possibility that the Ford home will be reconstructed and the site turned into a museum is remote.

More likely, Ballinascarty will sink further into obscurity. Traces of the early Fords are still evident here and in Cork City, but anyone who wants to undercover the roots of the man who invented the Model T might want to do it soon.

The stone cottage in Ballinascarty where several generations of Fords were born and reared has long since fallen into rubble, and the house in Cork City where the family lived briefly before leaving Ireland in 1847 has been torn down.

The Irish still claim the Fords as native sons, however, and a visit to the ancestral home sites is likely to end up as a fascinating oral history.

Wall-to-Wall Dairy Farms

The only road leading to Ballinascarty through the wall-to-wall dairy farms of County Cork is a winding two-lane stretch of N-71 that links Clonakilty with Bandon.

The village itself is little more than a country crossroads where you can quaff a pint or two at the Holland Bar or the Whistle Inn, fill your gas tank at the pumps outside or catch up on the local gossip at the Patrician Hall. Don't look for a historic marker designating the site of the Ford homestead because you won't find one.

The only hint that Ballinascarty is linked with the Fords at all is a sign pointing the way to the Henry Ford Gaelic Athletic Assn. Park, where the men in town square off against visiting teams in hurling and Gaelic football matches.

The best way to find the Ford family home site is to ask a local farmer to take you there. Along the way, you will probably get an earful of local Ford lore that thickens like good Irish stew every time it is stirred.

"There are still a lot of Fords living in the area, especially in Ballinascarty and Courtmacsherry, and many of their ancestors are buried in the cemetery outside Clonakilty," Dan Holland, a 70-year-old farmer, said as he led the way down a muddy rutted lane directly across the main highway from the GAA park sign.

The narrow track was overgrown with flowering wild blackberry bushes and wound its way through a pasture, where a herd of cows pressed close to the barbed-wire fence.

Holland's broad face crinkled into a smile as he related in a heavy Irish brogue the excitement that gripped Ballinascarty years ago when the late Henry Ford II paid a brief visit.

"He arrived by helicopter and there were police all over the place," said Holland, who was later inspired to compose an Irish ballad about the Ford family. "He went to see where his family home was and then he ate at the Ardnavaha House and then he left."

Although historic photos of the Ford home picture it as a one-room, dry-stone cottage with a corrugated metal roof, all that Holland could find beneath the brambles that cover the site was a single rock.

" 'Tis a shame this place has not been made into a museum," Holland said. "They had the plans for it all drawn up, but I don't know what ever happened to them."

The Ford cottage was originally built around 1800 by William and Rebecca Jennings Ford, great-grandparents of Henry Ford, who farmed a 23-acre plot they rented from Jonas Starvell.

Ford R. Bryan, a historian at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, has traced several generations of Fords to the Ballinascarty homestead. These include Henry Ford's grandfather, John, and his father, William.

The Fords might have remained indefinitely, eking out a living as farmers, if the potato famine had not struck Ireland in 1847.

John Ford and his wife, Thomasina, packed young William and his six brothers and sisters into a horse-drawn cart along with their few possessions and headed for Cork City. Their plan was to follow in the footsteps of other relatives who had left Ireland and settled in America or Canada.

In Cork, the Ford family took up residence in a brick-and-mortar house on Fair Lane, which years later inspired the name for one of Ford Motor Co.'s most popular car models.

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