February 21, 2024

Tractor Wars is story that has everything and which is relayed with appealing zing by a gung-ho Kielty. Photograph: BBC NI/PA
Patrick Kielty’s career has see-sawed between hit-and-miss standup comedy and documentaries about his native Northern Ireland. Those films tend to be earnest and emotive — understandably so, given his father was killed by loyalist terrorists when Kielty was a teenager.
He finds common ground between those two screen personas in Patrick Kielty’s Tractor Wars: Ferguson v Ford (BBC Two, 9pm), his film about Harry Ferguson, the early 20th-century tractor magnate and the first Irishman to fly in a plane. Ferguson grew up down the road from Kielty in Dundrum, Co Down and the comedian sketches with pride Ferguson’s ascent from obscure tinkerer to global industrial titan.
“Harry Ferguson’s rise was extraordinary,” says Kielty. “He left the family farm to become a motor mechanic, aviator and world-renowned inventor.”
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It’s a story that has everything and which is relayed with appealing zing by a gung-ho Kielty. In particular, it has a lot of tractors. It is Ferguson we have to thank for the workhorse of every Irish farm, the Massey-Ferguson — an iconic tractor in so far as it is possible for a tractor to achieve icon-hood (Kielty argues persuasively that this should be the case).
The tale comes with an Irish villain too. Henry Ford, the son of a farmer from Ballinascarthy West Cork, became Ferguson’s business associate in the United States, their deal to pool resources and expertise sealed with a handshake.
Alas, that handshake was long forgotten by the time Ford’s grandson, Henry II, was entrusted with the family legacy. He cut ties with Ferguson and then stole his innovative tractor design. Ferguson sued and won — but against the might of the Ford corporation, it was a pyrrhic triumph.
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All of this is relayed with fizz-bomb enthusiasm by Kielty. “He was a bit of a dude,” he says of Ferguson. “He was an adventurer — a bit of a boy, as they say in County Down.”
Kielty traces Ferguson’s journey from Down — “If you grow up in a house where there was only the piano and a bible, you can see why Harry got itchy feet” — to the art-deco Neverland that was 1920s Detroit. In Michigan, where Ferguson tweaked his nose at Ford by opening a huge tractor factory, he even meets a Ferguson fan club, the Ferguson Enthusiasts of North America.
The film ends in Ballinascarthy, at the Henry Ford Tavern. Over a pint, Kielty reflects on how far these two men came — and how Irish a story this ultimately is. It is, he concludes, a tale of how “two farm boys from different town lands in Ireland ended up changing the world”.

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