Ever since I first saw this photograph of two kids using the confusion of the Irish Civil War as cover for a daring heist on a bakery’s produce (some say they were guarding the cart for the Irish Free State but I don’t believe that for a moment), I’ve been trying to work out its location. I thought that the name of the baker might help and I spent time studying the photo, trying to decipher it from the half-letters visible, but no joy.
Until, searching the National Library archives for something else, I found this:-
Taken on Lord Edward Street, during the Civil War, it shows a cart from the bakery of Peter Kennedy. The lettering on the cart corresponds to that half-visible on the one in the first photo above. Definitely from the same bakery so. But is it the same cart? Quite possibly. There seems to be a coat in the same place on the top. And the cobblestones correspond too.
I decided to look into the history of Kennedy’s Bakery, just to see if I could find anything about a daring schoolboy civil war bread robbery, but no joy there either and the lads above remain regrettably untraced. Though what I found out about the bakery was interesting.
Kennedy’s Bread was a Dublin institution from as far back as the 1850s, when Peter Kennedy, the founder of the firm, took over an existing bakery in Great Britain Street (later Parnell Street). Subsequently another branch was opened in Patrick Street.
By 1909 the firm was well-established; a puff-pastry article in the Irish Times of the 21st December 1909 describing it as
“one of the best-known houses in the bakery trade in Dublin… the bread supplies which are daily sent out from Kennedy’s establishment find a ready sale in all parts of the city and suburbs of Dublin and, at present, the supply of Christmas cakes which is being put on the market from this bakery is being eagerly bought up by the retail dealers of the city and by private consumers…”
Kennedys not only survived with aplomb the Great Dublin Bakery Strike of the 1900s, but (unlike Bolands’ Mills and Jacobs’ Biscuits, which supplied their products free of charge and without consent) made a bit of a profit out of the Easter Rising by providing paid-for bread to the forces in the GPO. Perhaps the choice of the Parnell Street premises to fortify the hungry rebels was due to the fact that one of their leaders, Con Colbert, was an employee there?
Around this time the firm started manufacturing one of their most popular products, the Bermaline malt loaf (“brown bread that invites closer acquaintance… a crisp delicious crust which you will enjoy biting into… its flavour is altogether worthy of its looks”) to accompany that most popular Dublin staple, the Vienna Roll. In 1938 Kennedys’ Well-Fruited Sultana and Madeira Cakes won first prize at the International Bakers and Confectioners Exhibition in the Royal Albert Hall, London, losing out narrowly to a rival firm for the Irish Challenge Shield. And in 1953, just as rationing came to an end, the Kennedy Open Pan won first prize at the International Bakery Exhibition at the Mansion House, Dublin.
Things looked to be going well for Kennedys; but on Thursday the 3rd July 1971 breakfasters all over Dublin choked on their Bermaline toast at the announcement that the bakery end of the business, employing three-quarters of its 400-strong workforce, was to close. A statement issued gave the reasons as follows:-
“Due to the continuing decline in bread sales, and the repeated delays in obtaining sanctions to increase bread prices by an adequate amount to meet rising costs, the board regret having to announce that a decision has been made to cease bread production on June 26th.”
The Irish Times’ take on the collapse of the Kennedy loaf was as follows:-
“Tt has been rumoured for some time that certain Dublin bakeries were having financial difficulties. The consumption of bread has been declining by 2% and the profit margins are exceptionally low. These factors comined with the high cost of transport (vans often have to call to outlets which order only half a dozen loaves) would point to many other closures.. ironically, the move by Kennedy will help its competitors who have been finding the going difficult. “
In October of the same year it was reported that Kennedy’s shops (and vans) would be sold; the confectionery business limped on for a few years but not much longer than that and tempting-fate advertisements like the one below were no longer to be seen in the Dublin papers.
So what really caused the decline of Kennedy’s market-leading, prize winning bread? Was it, as stated by the Irish Times, the decline of the bread business generally, or, as subtly hinted at in the same article, were there darker forces at work? Rumour has it that, piqued by Kennedy’s massive success on the 1960s International Bread Competition circuit, one of their competitors (quite possibly Johnston Mooney and O’Brien which had premises beside them in Parnell Street) recruited Dublin inner city schoolboys and paid them in cream cakes and sticky buns to learn the following specially written playground song and to teach it to as many other children as possible:-
“Don’t eat Kennedy’s Bread, it’ll stick to your belly like lead, you’ll be farting like thunder, with your trousers asunder, don’t eat Kennedy’s Bread.”
There was a politer but no less damaging version for girls’ schools:-
“Kennedy’s bread, would kill a man dead, especially a man, with a baldy head.”
By coincidence, the first person to immortalise Kennedy’s Bread in rhyming form was 131-years-young-today James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake (“Whase be his baken head? A loaf of Singpantry’s [St Patrick's] Kennedy bread”). Maybe that’s what gave Johnston Mooney and O’Brien their idea, but they couldn’t have done it without the kids confectionery-bribed to help. Possibly some of them even the grandchildren of the two in the photo at the start of this post? I do hope so; it would be a relief to know that they managed to dodge stray bullets, tuberculosis and so forth and grew up to pass their grubby complex-carbohydrate-fuelled divilment onto the next generation…