After the country had estabilised politically following the Civil War, Ireland endured decades of comparative economic stagnation. Protected behind tariff barriers the Irish economy relied on its home market to a great extent. The standard of living was poor by European standards and emigration was one of the great scourges of Irish life. Many older Cork people will remember the boatloads of emigrants boarding The Innisfallen at Penrose Quay. So many Corkmen emigrated to work in the Fords factory in Dagenham that it became known as ‘Little Cork’. Many of the Dagenham emigrants returned home every year for their holidays. With their more fashionable clothes and the slight traces of English accents they became known, affectionately, as ‘The Dagenham Yanks’. The most important employers in Cork during this period included Fords, Dunlops, Sunbeam Wolsey, Irish Steel and Verolme Cork Dockyards. Many smaller enterprises engaged in the textile, agricultural processing, chemical and printing industries.
When Ireland, under the leadership of Séan Lemass, prepared to abandon protectionism in the late 1950s, the Committee on Industrial Organisation produced a report for the government outlining the structural weaknesses of the Irish economy which needed to be remedied before Ireland could face the competition arising from free trade as it prepared to join the Common Market. While government grants and loans were offered to firms to remedy these defects, among which was the lack of cooperation between firms operating in the same industries, not enough Cork firms availed of the opportunities. The economic historian Tim Meagher has written ‘The penalty for this failure was the slow demise of some of Cork’s traditional employers during the recessionary years of the 1970s and 1980s.’ The closures of Fords and Dunlops in the early 1980s were hammer blows to the economic life of the city. While Cork had enjoyed a period of economic prosperity in the 1960s and early 1970s, the city was economically devastated during the late 1970s and 1980s with the indigenous industries unable to compete with foreign enterprises which had freer access to the Irish market since Ireland had joined the EEC (now the EU). Thousands of young Cork people were forced to emigrate in search of work while unemployment rose to levels not experienced since the early 1950s