The history of bread in Ireland

Bread was first made by the ancient Egyptians as far back as the year 8000BC when grains, cultivated on the fertile banks of the River Nile, were ground by hand to make flat bread. Over the centuries, farmers across Europe started to grow grains for bread as it became a staple in the diet. The oldest record of bread in Ireland was also a flat bread, dating back to the Stone Age. As bread-making made its way west across Europe, the Norman invasion brought new bread making methods to Ireland. Sometime in the 11th Century, fine sieves were used to separate the bran and white bread was born, a privilege of the nobility. Thankfully nowadays, white bread is for everyone and is an everyday staple food.

The first Bakers’ Guild charter in Ireland was granted in 1478 by King Edward IV, from which arose (no pun intended!) many Bakers’ Guilds or Societies in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland. The Boot Lane Society and Little Britain St. Society were among the most prominent of these, starting in 1847. In Limerick, there are records from 1837 and records in Cork date from the 1860’s. In fact, there were a great many “journeymen” bakers who would travel around the country wherever the work brought them.

Of course, in Ireland, we are very familiar with Irish Soda bread. While we might think we invented it here in Ireland, there are varieties of soda bread found in many countries. What we do know is that baking soda was introduced into Ireland in the mid-19th Century. The origin of bicarbonate of soda (bread soda or baking soda), a key ingredient, is unclear, with claims that it was invented in France or Germany, depending on what you read. Long before this, potash was used in baking by the native Americans to make their version of soda bread. How it works is that the lactic acid in buttermilk reacts with the alkaline bread soda which creates tiny bubbles and so allows the bread to rise. According to some sources, the reason that soda bread was so popular in Ireland intially was that it didn’t require yeast, which was relatively expensive. Furthermore, yeast bread took time for the bread to prove and rise, whereas soda bread could be made very quickly. It was also better suited to the type of flour which was available at the time.

During the Industrial Revolution, bread tins and milling and baking equipment were developed, meaning that bread could be made on a bigger scale. Other types of bread that grew in popularity over the centuries include the batch loaf and the turnover grinder, which was particularly associated with Dublin.

Commercial bread baking continues to this day with bakeries across the country, many of which can trace their history back over numerous decades. As Ireland’s oldest bakery, Johnston Mooney & O’Brien has over 185 years of tradition baking bread in Ballsbridge, Dublin and first introduced the ‘sliced loaf’ to Ireland, and by the 1960’s, horse and cart deliveries were replaced with a new fleet of electric vans – very sustainable and green!

It was over fifty years ago that Joseph Brennan, Old Mr Brennan himself, baked loaves of Brennans Bread in a single room bakery in Fumbally Lane, Dublin. Since then, the bakery has moved to out to Walkinstown and is now the number one grocery brand in Ireland (Kantar 2019). Brennans is very much a family affair, with the Brennan family still overseeing the bakery and the fantastic range of breads which cater for consumers wide ranging needs.

In 1953, Pat Higgins from Mayo arrived in Granard, Co. Longford and first set up a bakery in the back of his home serving the local community. Over the years, the business grew and Pat the Baker became known across the county and the bakery moved to new, larger premises in its hometown.

Irish Pride has its bakery in Taghmon, Co.Wexford and records show that the first bakery there was set up in 1878. The bakery began as a collaboration of family bakers in 1989 who came together in the spirit of collaboration, and has grown from strength to strength since then.

One of the things that all the bakeries have in common is that the bread is baked every day (well, every night really) for delivery across the country in the early morning so that you can have fresh bread on your table every day. The other, is that the love of bread in the Irish diet remains to this day and truly has stood the test of time. There are some things that just don’t change!

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FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE HISTORY OF BREAD YOU CAN VISIT

• SWIFT, JOHN. “The Bakers' Records.” Saothar, vol. 3, 1977, pp. 1–5. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23195201
http://thelittlemill.ie/story-of-irish-brown-bread/
http://www.nationalbreadweek.ie/irish-bread/about-irish-bread/
https://www.odlums.ie/at-school/the-story-of-bread/
https://www.fob.uk.com
https://brennansbread.ie
https://www.irishpride.ie
http://www.jmob.ie
http://www.patthebaker.com
https://www.andrewsflour.com/history/

Editor’s notes
Oonagh Monahan is the Principle Consultant at Alpha Omega Consultants, a specialist food business consultancy based in Co. Leitrim. She is a Chartered Food Scientist, a Fellow of the Institute of Food Science and Technology (UK) and the Institute of Food Science and Technology of Ireland (IFSTI).
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