1241a. Advertisement for Universal Motor Company, 1924. (source: Cork City Library)

Making an Irish Free State City – the Universal Motor Company

On 15 February 1924, a special meeting of the Law and Finance Committee of Cork Corporation was held to consider the requests from a deputation from Messrs M Healy and Sons solicitors, on behalf of the Universal Motor Company, Ltd and its director John Patrick O’Mahony. The company was applying for a thirty-one year lease of the premises, known as the Shell Factory (now the Bodega), Cornmarket Street, and was agreeing to surrender the extent lease.

The City Engineer, JF Delany, reported on the matter. The premises were formerly the property of Cork Corporation, and used as a meat market, fronting North Main Street and also Cornmarket Street.

The premises were leased to the British government in 1916 as a munitions factory, and were transferred to Richard Woodhead (South of Ireland Motor Company), and subsequently leased to Universal Motor Company. The latter lease was for a period of twenty-one years from June 1916.

The trade carried on was for the sale, repair and garaging of motor vehicles. The rent payable was £200 per annum, which did not include rates, the poor rate, and income tax.

During the February 1924 meeting, the rent offered by John P O’Mahony was £200 per annum, which if free of these outgoings would leave no revenue to the corporation. This caused concern for the committee.

John P O'Mahony said he had made important contracts with firms covering Munster, and also Kilkenny and Wexford. Since late June 1923, he was the lead partner with Fords Cork for the selling of their cars to local markets.

John sought cars that would be sold at an affordable rate and struck a deal with Fords to make sure costs were as low at they could be. The Ford Factory on Cork’s south docks sold tractors and cars into the UK market and it was up to Irish entrepreneurs to import such machines back into Ireland.

Founded in 1914 by Julia Herlihy, the Universal Motor Company was built upon an international business. In the late nineteenth century, Julia and her husband Timothy O’Herlihy from Kilmurray amassed an extensive fortune in India through the hotel business. They owned a number of hotels, one of which was in Darjeeling. The wealth amassed by Julia Herlihy found its way back to Cork. The Universal Motor Company pursued a small trade in coach building and selling motor cars.

When Julia passed away in 1917, her will bequeathed her company to her nephew John P O’Mahony who spearheaded a direct contract with Fords in Cork, which meant lower freight charges and less waiting time for the purchased car to arrive in Cork.

In addition, in his own way John was responsible for the sharp increase by Munster people in owning their own affordable car. Such a change was to radically increase the ask for road space, the insurance market for motor cars and created a new era in the development of the motor car business in the early Irish Free State.

At the corporation committee meeting, John P O’Mahony noted that he was interested in motor car body building and detailed that this would give a good deal of local employment.

John was also of the view that commercial vehicles should not be imported but should be made locally. He felt that in a year or two his company would be employing over 100 men. The reason for his application was to get security of tenure on the premises, so that he could make alterations and extensions, which would mean an expenditure of some thousands of pounds. He highlighted that in the motor industry in the past there was a very serious problem around not having up-to-date plant machinery.

The city engineer argued that the rent should be £550. A small shop in the same street had been rented recently at £100 a year; those premises were new, but not at all as extensive as St Peter's Market.

It was agreed that the company pay the corporation for the premises £50 a year in addition to all charges, which amount to £203 17s. This arrangement was accepted.

In 1925, John Patrick decided to make the Universal Motor Company a limited company. The National Archive in Dublin reveals the company formation documents. The certificate of incorporation of the Universal Motor Company Limited was on the 2 Sept 1925.

The first directors were John Patrick O’Mahony, David O’Mahony (a brother), both registered at 40 North Main St, Joseph O’Mahony (a brother) of Knock, Rochestown and Charles P. McCarthy, an incorporated accountant of 50 South Mall. The chairman was John Patrick O’Mahony. The nominal capital of the company was £10,000 divided into 10,000 shares of £1 each.

The money was borrowed in late September 1925. However, in February 1926, the company ran into financial problems and the bank appointed a receiver.

By 1927, the receiver had sold off the Cornmarket Street premises and the garage on North Main Street was replaced by the Lee Hosiery and Clothing Factory. The Universal Motor Company Limited was eventually dissolved in July 1945.

In East Cork around 1934, John Patrick O’Mahony diversified into a hurley making business in Killeagh. His brothers Joe and Paddy were also involved. The hurley manufacturing continued until the 1970s.

Parts of the above article were first published in in 2008. Sincere thanks to Pat Reen, Eamonn O’Mahony, Betty O’Mahony and Sheila Healy for their insights into the O’Mahony clan.