As kids we grew up living over the bakery shop here at the West Gate in Clonmel, Co Tipperary. Then we moved out to Powerstown.
Dad bought a bit of land and we lived on the farm there.
My brothers were and are involved in horses. Even when we were living here in the shop there were stables up the back.
We didn’t even have a horsebox, the lads would have to trek up the mountains to give them a good gallop.
Out on the farm then we had cattle and ponies. Dad loved farming. He was from here, the West Gate, but our car park across the road looks up on to the hills so he used to keep sheep up there when he was a young fella. He always had a love of nature and farming. That was his thing, to buy a bit of land.
I’m the fourth generation baking here. The shop goes back to 1900. In 1929 my grandfather, John Hickey, won an award for his barmbrack.
His barmbrack just got known locally, then people travelling outside of Clonmel were bringing it to their friends and family elsewhere. It just got very well known and it still is.
I think after the war [WWI] fruit was scarce, so fruitcakes were a real treat and a luxury long ago.
Halloween is kind of like our Christmas here. From the end of September onwards we just start baking barmbracks full-on, as well as all our daily breads too, of course.
At Halloween we put the ring in the barmbrack, but unfortunately we can’t put in all the other trinkets there used to be because of health and safety.
Years ago if you got a holy medal it meant you were going to become a priest or a nun, a ring to get married, a coin for wealth, a stick for a beating, a button you’d be a bachelor or a spinster, a pea for plenty and a cloth then for poverty.
I think there’s a sense of comfort and nostalgia that comes with barmbrack. Everybody remembers a fruit cake or a barmbrack as something you had at your grandmother’s.
I love mine toasted with butter.
Old and new
Growing up over the shop, it was busy. We always had jobs to do. At the weekends we were always working behind the counter. I’d be sent over to the creamery to collect the cream fresh from the dairy for the cakes.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t involved in baking. I started off greasing the tins.
I came in here straight from school. There was a letter found after my father died, it was in his little box of tricks. I had written to him when I was about nine or 10 looking for a job. I obviously got it.
When I started in here after school that’s when I setup the coffee shop. We had moved out of here, so the kitchen was vacant. The kitchen downstairs then became the coffee shop.
Since the pandemic we haven’t reopened the cafe as our space is very small. During lockdown we cleared the tables and chairs and we just have an artisan food area with local foods and all our breads.
We’ve had the coffee shop for years, so the younger generation associated Hickeys with the cafe, whereas the older generation know it as the bakery. Since lockdown the younger generation have realised that it’s a bakery, not just a cafe. We’re still doing takeaway coffee and pastries though.
At the moment we’ve got three vans on the road. We send our yeast breads – you know soda breads and daily breads – around the southeast to supermarkets, small shops, restaurants, hotels and nursing homes.
We also do a range of sourdoughs as well, just for our own shop. I won two Great Taste Awards for them just a few weeks ago. It was for our beetroot sourdough and our rosemary and raisin sourdough. They’re our weekend breads.
Over the years our barmbrack has gained us some attention too.
Two years ago Mary Berry came and that was huge. BBC cameras pulling into the yard, a team of 12 people. She’s an icon and here she was inside in our bakery. She’s the queen of baking. That was a huge testament. Looking back I’m like, did that happen? Donal Skehan came as well to see the barmbrack.
We take it for granted maybe as we’ve been doing it so long but it’s special.