Ford, Patrick (1837–1913), journalist and land reformer, was born 12 April 1837 in Galway, the son of Edward Ford (1805–80) and his wife Anne (née Ford) (1815–1893). He emigrated with his parents to the US in 1845 and never revisited Ireland. Although he devoted his life to Irish causes, Ford wrote in the Irish World in 1886, ‘I might as well have been born in Boston. I know nothing of England. I brought nothing with me from Ireland – nothing tangible to make me what I am. I had consciously at least, only what I found and grew up in here’. Ford was educated in Boston's public schools and the Latin school of the parish of St Mary in the North End. He left school at thirteen. Two years later, William Lloyd Garrison hired Ford as a printer's devil in the office of his abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator. Working for Garrison, Ford found his vocation as a publisher and editor who would use his paper to promote social justice. He also adopted much of the Old Testament rhetoric of his mentor.
Ford began writing for Boston papers in 1855. By 1861, he was editor and publisher of the Boston Tribune (alternately called the Boston Sunday Tribune and the Boston Sunday Times). Like the Liberator, Ford's paper was abolitionist and pro-union. (In addition to his work with Garrison and his own immigrant's sense of exclusion, he identified with the slave Anthony Burns whom he witnessed being taken through the streets of Boston to be returned to his owner under the provisions of the 1850 fugitive slave act.) Ford, his father and his brother served in the union army during the American civil war; two brothers served in the union navy. Ford enlisted as a private in ‘A’ company of the 9th Massachusetts infantry, a unit of Boston Irish commanded by Col. Philip R. Guiney, which fought in the northern Virginia campaign including the battle of Fredericksburg (13 December 1862). (His obituary in the Irish World (4 Oct. 1913) described Ford charging up Marye's Heights.)
After the civil war, Ford spent four years in Charleston, South Carolina, editing the South Carolina Leader which promoted the welfare of newly-freed slaves. He later edited the Irish-American Charleston Gazette. In 1870 Ford settled in New York and founded the populist Irish World to promote Irish and catholic interests. It became Irish-America's preeminent newspaper, its circulation reaching 125,000 subscribers in the 1890s. No other Irish-American papers, including John Devoy's (qv) Irish Nation (1881–5) and Gaelic American (1903–28), drew more than a quarter of the Irish World's readership; it also had a circulation of some 20,000 in Ireland. Only John Boyle O'Reilly's (qv) Boston Pilot challenged its hegemony. In 1879 Ford proposed to augment his Irish readership with the Spread the Light Fund to provide free copies of the Irish World, and raised $7,600 to subsidise the distribution of 450,000 copies. (When the British government tried to ban the paper from entering Irish ports, Ford accused them of censorship.) Under the motto ‘The Irish World is the People's Library’, the paper became a twelve-page weekly with illustrations and cartoons, foreign correspondents, local Irish-American news, reports from each of the Irish counties, and sixteen special departments. It promised ‘more reading material than any other paper in America’ and was much valued by an immigrant generation which, while unskilled, was mostly literate.
The American economic depression of 1873 convinced Ford that the Irish rural poor and the American urban poor shared the same plight. He believed that the homestead act (1862) was exploited by big business, especially the railroads, and by speculators who left the poor without access to the western land meant for settlement. Ford called for land reform, and many of his ideas on the importance of the land question anticipated Henry George's Progress and poverty (1879). George shared Ford's belief that land monopoly was the cause of poverty and that a single tax based on land valuation was the solution. In the mid–1870s Ford left the Democratic party. Critical of Tammany corruption and attracted to the fiscal policies of the Greenback Labor Party, he was a member of the party's New York State central committee as early as 1876, and backed the Greenback presidential candidates Peter Cooper and James B. Weaver in 1876 and 1880. Even the Greenbacks failed to offer the land reforms envisaged by Ford, so he formed the short-lived National Cooperative Democracy Party in 1879. In the 1884 and 1888 elections, Ford turned to the Republican party, encouraging Irish-American voters to abandon their traditional loyalty to the Democrats for the Republican candidate James G. Blaine, whom he promoted in the Irish World as supportive of labour and of Ireland. The Republican patronage of the financially-troubled Irish World was a factor in the endorsement, but Ford believed Blaine's promise to introduce high trade tariffs would protect American labour interests.
The Irish World was a formidable political force for Ireland in the US. Ford and Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (qv) used it to launch a ‘skirmishing fund’ in 1876 to finance the activities of militant Fenians to carry on a campaign of terror in Britain, and a large amount of money was raised. The management of the fund became a divisive issue among Irish-American nationalists, with Ford and Devoy quarrelling bitterly about its use. The feud with Devoy lasted beyond Ford's lifetime and culminated in Devoy's libel suit against the Irish World which he won in 1923.
Ford and Devoy differed on ideological as well as personal and tactical issues. Ford was much more concerned about the land question in Ireland than Devoy and believed that he and Clan na Gael had no conception of the consequences of the poor harvest threatening Irish tenants in 1879, the year that Michael Davitt (qv) founded the Irish National Land League. Ford called for land reform, and Henry George supported Ford by promoting land nationalisation in The Irish land question (1879). Ford introduced George to Davitt the following year, and sent George to Ireland in the autumn of 1881 to report on the land war. The Irish World carried George's reports through the winter of 1881–2. Ford was a strong supporter of the Land League, but his land agenda was more radical than peasant proprietorship: believing the land belonged to the people, he supported the ‘No Rent Manifesto’ of October 1881. Ford established his own American-based league to collect funds under the auspices of Irish World, and by October 1882 had raised some $343,000, and helped promote the visits to America of leading Irish nationalist politicians such as Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), John Dillon (qv), and Davitt. Ford also helped to encourage the establishment of some 2500 branches of the Land League in the US during 1881–2. Davitt later praised him as ‘the most powerful support of the struggle in Ireland on the American continent’ (Fall of feudalism, 716). Disillusioned with Parnell's 1882 Kilmainham treaty that ended the land war and relied on parliamentary action to achieve peasant proprietorship, Ford turned increasingly to physical force nationalism. While never a Fenian, he defended the Phoenix Park murders of May 1882 and the dynamite campaign of 1881–5 in the Irish World, and was often portrayed in the British press as a financier of terrorism. During the land war he wrote The criminal history of the British empire (1881), which included his five letters to William Gladstone written in 1881 indicting the British government for their Irish policies. Gladstone was said to have said of Ford, ‘But for the work the Irish World is doing and the money it is sending across the ocean, there would be no agitation in Ireland’. Ford's second book The Irish question and American statesmen (1885) focused on the Irish question in American politics.
As Irish immigrants increasingly moved into the middle class, William Grace (qv) was elected New York City's first catholic mayor in 1880 and 1884. In 1886, however, Ford urged his readers to support Henry George, the Labor Party's New York City mayoral candidate, despite condemnations of George's socialism by Michael Corrigan (1839–1902), archbishop of New York. Shaken by the death of six policemen in the 4 May 1886 Haymarket riot in Chicago, Ford continued to support trade unions but urged labour leaders to reject violence and work within the system. He did not support George in October 1887 when he ran for the post of secretary of state, differing with him on free trade. After the Irish parliamentary party split in 1891, he supported the Parnellite faction of John Redmond (qv) and endorsed the terms of the home rule bill of 1912; Redmond paid a generous tribute to him on his death. Ford died 23 September 1913 at his home at 350 Clermont Street, Brooklyn. After an impressive funeral, he was buried in Brooklyn's Holy Cross cemetery.
In 1863 he married Odele McDonald, who predeceased him. They had eleven children: three daughters and eight sons. At the time of Ford's death, his son Patrick was managing editor of the Irish World and his brother Augustine was business manager and publisher. In his photograph in The criminal history of the British empire, Ford has a high forehead, piercing eyes and a stern expression. McGuirl described him as ‘a slender grave man with the head of a scholar, the eye of a dreamer and the jaw of a fighter’. Ford appears to have destroyed his personal papers. The files of the Irish World are the best record of his life and work.