50 years ago today Pfizer opened it's multi-million euro plant in Ringaskiddy

John Dolan recalls a major moment in Pfizer's Cork history, 50 years ago this week, when then-Taoiseach Jack Lynch opened a new £13million plant at Ringaskiddy, signalling the start of pharmaceutical production on the site.
50 years ago today Pfizer opened it's multi-million euro plant in Ringaskiddy

Taoiseach Jack Lynch visiting Pfizer Ringaskiddy at the start of pharmaceutical production back in 1972.

THE names of John J. Powers and Jack Mulcahy should trip off the Leeside tongue as easily as that of another great Irish-American industrialist Henry Ford.

Fifty years ago, Powers and Mulcahy joined forces as proud sons of Munster to deliver an ambitious plan to open a plant of the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in Ringaskiddy.

The company had opened a food chemical plant there in 1969, and on October 7, 1972, to great fanfare, Taoiseach Jack Lynch opened a new £13million plant at Ringaskiddy, signalling the start of pharmaceutical production on the site.

Aerial view of construction of the Pfizer pharmaceutical factory at Ringaskiddy back in 1969.
Aerial view of construction of the Pfizer pharmaceutical factory at Ringaskiddy back in 1969.

A decade later, Pfizer opened a further plant in Little Island and now employs around 800 people in Cork, of a total Irish Pfizer workforce of about 4,000.

It is impossible to over-state how important and influential the decision of Pfizer was at the time, and how crucial a role it has played in the upturned economic fortunes of Cork and Ireland in the past half-century.

Retired Pfizer employee, Ms Kay Walsh at the opening of an exhibition of Pfizer 50 - A celebration of Pfizer's 50 year history in Ireland. Kay was one of the first employees at the Ringaskiddy site, Cork when it opened in 1969. Picture: Miki Barlok
Retired Pfizer employee, Ms Kay Walsh at the opening of an exhibition of Pfizer 50 - A celebration of Pfizer's 50 year history in Ireland. Kay was one of the first employees at the Ringaskiddy site, Cork when it opened in 1969. Picture: Miki Barlok

A few years ago, six of the top 10 drugs sold around the world were being manufactured in Ireland.

Pfizer is best known for the erectile-dysfunction drug Viagra, the active ingredient for which is produced in Cork. But even that achievement was overshadowed this year when the world welcomed with joy the news that a vaccine being developed by Pfizer, along with German firm BioNTech, would be an effective defence against Covid-19.

Then, in November, Pfizer announced that its facility in Ringaskiddy will play a key role in supporting the global manufacture of its new experimental antiviral pill for Covid-19.

The location of global companies to Ireland has almost become our industrial raison d’etre in recent years, but the crucial first step was taken in 1972.

 

Pfizer plant at Ringaskiddy.
Pfizer plant at Ringaskiddy.

Pfizer was founded in 1849, by German-born cousins Charles Pfizer and Charles Erhardt, in Brooklyn, New York.

By the 1960s, many of its top executives had Irish blood. Step forward Messrs Powers and Mulcahy.

In 1968, John J Powers was President and CEO of Pfizer. He presided over an era of massive expansion, opening plants in 100 countries in the 1960s, and he was determined one of them would be in Ireland.

When he announced a plant would be built at Ringsakiddy, in September, 1968, employing 350, it was epoch-defining; a huge investment in Irish people and jobs.

The arrival of Pfizer also had a trickle-down effect; for instance, the Irish Sugar Company alone stood to make £450,000 a year from selling molasses to it.

As his name suggests, Powers’ grandparents hailed from Waterford — Dungarvan in fact — and an interview in the Cork Examiner revealed what drove his Irish ambitions.

Like Henry Ford before him, Powers said a desire to play a part in stemming the tide of emigration from Ireland had a particular appeal “to those of us who have Irish backgrounds and whose grandparents were forced to leave this country”.

He added: “We think it is time there was a return of that talent. It is a treat to come to a country that is on the move. I am very happy to do something for Ireland from where so many in the United States have sprung.” 

John had a cousin at the time, Ned Power, living near Piltown in Co Kilkenny, and added: “The family name is Power, but somewhere along the way in the US, we added the ‘s’.” Away from the sentimentality, Powers was hard-nosed enough to acknowledge the practical reasons to open in Ireland.

The Pfizer Plant at Ringskiddy.
The Pfizer Plant at Ringskiddy.

There would be a generous corporation tax rate of 12.5% — the same as it is today — and an educated, adaptable workforce hungry for well-paid jobs in a stable industry.

As well as the grants on offer and other incentives, the 120-acre site on the Cork estuary was well situated in relation to supplies and shipment. Plus, power and water supplies were good, and ample room for expansion.

Powers also felt the Irish Government had a balanced approach to the role of government and industry. Pfizer had considered other locations, he concluded, but Ringaskiddy was the best.

Having said all of that, though, he was undoubtedly driven by a sentimental need to help out the land of his ancestors.

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