John Dolan: From Viagra to Covid vaccines, let’s give it up (ahem) for the pfabulous Pfizer

Fifty years ago, John J. Powers and Jack Mulcahy joined forces as proud sons of Munster to deliver an incredibly ambitious plan to open a plant of the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in Ringaskiddy. John Dolan tells us more in his weekly column
John Dolan: From Viagra to Covid vaccines, let’s give it up (ahem) for the pfabulous Pfizer

The Echo front page splash on September 12, 1968, announcing the arrival of Pfizer in Cork, with company boss John J Powers pictured on the left

WHILE many Irish folk were fawning over Joe Biden this past week — a man whose declared intention is to take pharmaceutical jobs out of Cork and bring them to America — I was researching the remarkable story of two great men who did the exact opposite.

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.

I believe it’s time they did.

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

A decade later, Pfizer opened a further plant in Little Island and today, some 800 people are employed at these two Cork operations, of a total Irish Pfizer workforce of around 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.

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 week when the world welcomed with joy the news that a vaccine being developed by Pfizer, along with German firm BioNTech, could be more than 90% effective against Covid-19.

Although the Cork operation has not been involved in this research, it is still a giant feather in the cap of the company, and means the future is brighter than ever for its Irish workforce.

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 the late 1960s, by Powers and Mulcahy...

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

They were a good match, Pfizer a chemist, Erhardt a confectioner; together they concocted winning ingredients. In one early success, they took a medicine that usually had a foul, bitter taste and added sugar-cream to make it palatable.

As an interesting aside, Erhart married Pfizer’s sister (yes, his own cousin).

After the founders died, the Pfizer family ran the company with great success for several decades.

In 1963, the firm announced its new measles vaccine would give 90% immunity — the exact same number as it claimed this week for its Covid vaccine.

Crucially for our story, by this stage, many of Pfizer’s 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 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 U.S, we added the ‘s’.”

Away from the sentimentality, Powers was hard-nosed enough to acknowledge the practical reasons to open in Ireland.

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 the site had 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.

Powers said while the business of a firm like Pfizer was obviously based on dollars and cents, anyone who thought sentiment could not enter into a project of that nature was greatly mistaken. He wanted to give something back to Ireland.

He also mentioned another driving force in this decision...

Jack Mulcahy had become a multi-millionaire on the back of his business interests, mainly in steel and pharmaceutical, and was a major Pfizer shareholder.

Born in Dungarvan — hence he was close to Powers — he emigrated to the U.S in the 1923, aged 17, after serving 13 months in jail for being a despatch carrier for the IRA. Mulcahy was also driven to ‘give something back’ to Ireland.

In 1968, Minister for Industry and Commerce, George Colley, alluded to this when he said Mulcahy had long been pushing a move to Ireland to Powers and finally persuaded him to have a luncheon with Cathal Loughney, of the Industrial Development Authority. This was pivotal to the Ringaskiddy plan going ahead.

Colley said: “I know Jack’s only reward is to see the situation in the country of his birth changing so the economy will forge ahead, and that no Irishman or woman would be force to emigrate as he was forced to do so.”

Jack’s son, Kevin Mulcahy, was general manager of the Fota Island golf complex and heavily involved in the staging of the Irish Open there in 2001 and 2002. He is now retired but involved with the CUH Charity as Secretary.

When Jack died in 1994, aged 88, his ashes were buried on the famous, short 17th at his beloved Waterville Golf Club in Kerry.

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“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” was one of the most famous quotes of the first Roman Catholic President of the USA, John F Kennedy. We know the second one, elected last week, wants to take jobs from Ireland and bring them to America.

Powers and Mulcahy knew all about doing something for their country. Two great Irish-Americans. For Biden, the jury is out.

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