Long before the potato became the stable diet of the Irish country folk milled grain was used to make bread which is still so characteristic of the Irish country kitchen. Wheat, oats and barley were ground in the saddle querns of a long lost age and the resulting crushed grain was used to make porridge or bread.
Oaten bread was at one time the most common type of bread. Wheaten bread was regarded somewhat of a luxury while barley bread was regarded as suitable only for monks and clerics who wished to mortify themselves.
The grinding of corn was by law carried out at the mill of the manor Lord. In the manors of Woodstock and Rheban the fees for grinding the corn were paid to the Fitzgerald family. It is interesting to observe in leases of land in Athy, even up to the eighteenth century a stipulation that corn was to be ground at the manorial mill with payment of the appropriate fee.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mills were located at both sides of the Barrow Bridge. The present Castle Inn occupies the site of one such mill while on the opposite bank a mill existed up to the 1960’s. Hannon’s mill, as it was called, was operational up to 1924, closing two or three years before the Barrow Drainage Scheme commenced. At the same time Hannon’s mill, located at Ardreigh, closed. It too was demolished some time in the 1940’s and little or no trace of the vast Ardreigh buildings remain today. A photograph of the mills as they were in 1910 is on display in the Museum Room in the Town Hall.
The Irish favoured the baking of bread using either a griddle or a pot oven. The griddle was a circular flat iron hung over the open fire or alternatively placed on an iron trivet over the burning sods of turf. The pot oven was a cast iron pot with a flat bottom and a tight fitting lid and like the griddle it was hung over the fire or rested on a trivet.
Built-in baking ovens which were popular in Britain after the seventeenth century were not to be found in many Irish houses. In the larger urban areas and cities the half cylindrical shaped masonry projection with a sloped roof typical of baking ovens was to be found in private houses where the family favoured the use of the baking oven rather than the open fire. In the urban areas also there developed a cottage bakery industry where the locals could buy fresh bread daily.
In Pigots Directory of 1824 the following bakers are listed as working in Athy:- Mary Bryan, Michael Byrne, Catherine Fogarty, Catherine Purcell and James Sourke. Their numbers had increased substantially by 1881 when Slaters Directory listed the town bakers as Gregory Bradley, Emily Square; James Bradley, William Street; Bridget Brewster, Leinster Street; James Conlan, Barrack Street; Margaret Fogarty, Leinster Street; Joseph Nugent, Duke Street; John Roberts, Leinster Street; James Tierney, William Street; Joseph Whelan, Duke Street and Miles Whelan of Duke Street and Offaly Street.
In addition to the bakeries Athy would have had a number of baking ovens where the local women could bring their bread and cake mix for baking. Such an oven, until recently, was to be seen in an outhouse attached to Websters sweet shop in Offaly Street. The availability of such an oven was a tremendous help for the poor people of the town whose circumstances and primitive living conditions did not permit the baking of bread in their own homes.
Today there is only one bakery operating in Athy. The townspeoples’ needs are largely met by bread deliveries brought into the town from Dublin and further afield every morning. The days of the master bakers are no more. Mechanisation and computer controlled systems have lead to bread production methods which do not require the skills and crafts of the bakers of old. Bread is now made in plants employing only one or two machinists where up to six thousand pans an hour can be produced without the intervention of human hand.
This advancement has been sadly achieved at the expense of workers and craftsmen and our local economy is all the poorer as a result.