Roots: The Ford Family
By Molly Ferns, Editorial Assistant
December / January 2012
The Ford family name has several possible origins. Its Anglo-Saxon roots can be traced back to Devonshire, where the name derived from the topographical term “ford,” meaning “a shallow place where water can be crossed.” However, this term originally comes from the Norse “fjord,” meaning a narrow inlet of sea. Therefore, the Ford family name is also thought to be Viking in origin. Several Irish cities represent this Viking influence—Longford, Waterford, and Wexford. It is also believed that Ford became the anglicized version of several Gaelic clans.
One Ford link is found in the MacGiolla na Naomha and the MacGiollarnath clans of Connacht. It is believed that these Gaelic surnames were erroneously anglicized due to the ending sound of ‘ath,’ which translates to ‘ford’ (i.e. Baile Atha Cliath: “town of the hurdled ford”). The MacCosnamha clan of Co. Leitrim also adopted the surnames Ford or Forde. Another region where the Ford or Forde family was found was Cork. Here, the O Fuarain clan anglicized their name to either Foran or Ford.
One of the greatest directors in film history was John Ford (1894-1973). Born John Martin Feeney to parents John Augustine Feeney of Galway and Barbara Curran of Inishmore, he moved to Hollywood with his brother and changed his last name to Ford. He worked with many Irish actors, most notably Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald. Ford is remembered for famous westerns, such as Rio Grande, and classics like How Green Was My Valley. One of his beloved films was The Quiet Man, which served as an homage to his Irish heritage.
The Ford name in Hollywood is also synonymous with actor and producer Harrison Ford. He once stated “I feel Irish as a person, but I feel Jewish as an actor.” He was born to parents Dorothy Nidelman, of Jewish descent, and Christopher Ford, of Irish-Catholic and German descent. He is best known for his work as Han Solo in the Star Wars films and as the lead in the Indiana Jones films.
Whitey Ford is a name of significance for any baseball fan. Born Edward Charles Ford to parents of Irish descent, he grew up in Astoria, Queens. He was signed to the New York Yankees as a pitcher in 1947 and earned the nickname “Whitey” from teammates for his blond hair.
Richard Ford is one of America’s greatest fiction writers. He is best known for The Sportswriter, Independence Day (which won the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner awards) and The Lay of the Land. He has written several short stories, including “Leaving for Kenosha,” in which his own migration story from New Orleans in the wake of Katrina can be compared to his Irish grandparents’ emigration in the 1890s.
In fashion, the Ford name is well recognized due to Jerry (1924-2008) and Eileen Ford, founders of the Ford Modeling Agency. A year after its establishment in 1946, it became one of the top agencies in the business.
The United States has also seen a Ford as Commander in Chief. Gerald R. Ford (1913-2006) was the 38th President of the United States. He was not born a Ford – originally Leslie Lynch King, Jr. – but legally changed his name to Gerald R. Ford, after his stepfather. Ford was appointed vice president by Richard Nixon in 1973 and assumed the presidency in 1974, following Nixon’s resignation. He remained in office until 1977. His wife, Betty Ford (1918-2011), was one of America’s most candid first ladies. She was an advocate for women’s rights, abortion, breast cancer awareness and addiction awareness. She helped establish the Betty Ford Center in 1982.
Finally, the Ford name is eternally associated with industrialist Henry Ford (1863-1947). John Ford, Henry’s paternal grandfather, was born in Ballinascarthy, Ireland. Ancestrally, the Ford family was English but settled in Ireland during the sixteenth century. John Ford was forced to leave Ballinascarthy with his family, including 21-year-old son William, in 1847 at the height of the Famine. They made the difficult journey to Queenstown, Canada, and William’s mother, Tomasina, did not survive. John settled his family on a farm in Dearborn, Michigan. William helped his father with the upkeep of the farm. Eventually, he met Mary Litogot. The two married in 1861 and gave birth to their first son, Henry, in 1863.
Henry Ford’s Irish heritage instilled in him a strong work ethic. He became an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company and after successfully building his first car in 1901, he established the Ford Motor Company in 1903. After introducing the Model T in 1908, the company took off.
Ford remained interested in his Irish heritage. He traveled to Ballinascarthy in 1912, and attempted to purchase his ancestral home, but the price was too high. Still, he bought the original hearthstones and incorporated them into his estate at Fair Lane, in Michigan. Ford would make several trips back to Ireland, including one to Cork in 1917 when he began Henry Ford & Sons, Ltd., the first international division. William Clay Ford, Jr., Henry Ford’s great-grandson who continues his legacy, appears on the cover of this issue. He is the 2011 Business 100 Keynote Speaker and the most recent inductee of the Irish America Hall of Fame.