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The Tipperary bakery known all over Ireland for its fabulous brack

Autumn and the holiday season are the busiest times of year for the bakery. The barmbrack is definitely the star of the show

Nuala Hickey searches through stacks of paper on her desk, looking for a recipe for Christmas cake. No luck, she goes to a bookcase. “Ah look!” she says, bringing over a colour photograph of happy children crowded around a white-frosted cake. “That’s the cake right there. And there we all are.”

Something about the picture looks familiar. “Sure, that’s the room we’re in right now.”

Hickey’s Bakery in Clonmel might be known all over Ireland, but it is still run out of the same premises as when it was founded around 1900 by Nuala’s great-grandfather Eamon. And what is now her office was the family dining room when she was growing up.

After four generations, no one in the family still lives in the building, but homey traces remain. What once was their parlour is now a storage space. The kitchen, with its aged aga, is still in use downstairs.


“We grew up here in the bakery and all of us were always involved,” Hickey says. “Growing up, we knew all the bakers, they were like family members. We still have some staff that have been here longer than I’m here.

“And the fixtures have definitely been here longer than me. The mixers and scales and slicers. The ovens. They’re all old equipment that is still working as good as ever.”

Though Hickey’s Bakery’s wider reputation is built on its fabulous barmbrack, available in fine food stores around the Republic, at its heart, it is still very much a family-run neighbourhood bakery.

Located in Clonmel’s Irishtown, right beside the 19th century West Gate, Hickey’s still caters to the locals, selling a wide range of breads and pastries in addition to the barmbrack – South Tipperary favourites like traditional sandwich loaves called grinders and curleys, as well as more recently added sourdoughs and even a spelt loaf.

Nuala is the latest Hickey to run the business. After her great-grandfather Eamon came his son John and when he died his wife Ellen. Nuala’s father Eddie, a renowned Clonmel character, came next, and in 2010, she took over.

Nuala had started working at the bakery when she graduated from secondary school and is the only family member still active in it. Her three brothers all followed their passion for horses and are successful in the show-jumping world. One sister is a teacher, the other a nurse.

Autumn and the holiday season are the busiest times of year for the bakery. The barmbrack is definitely the star of the show. Hanging on the wall is an award of excellence from the Hovis flour company from 1929 for Hickey’s “Sultana Bread”.

They bake it all year round, but it’s especially popular around Halloween. A slightly sweet, delicately textured loaf, it is speckled with sultanas and candied cherries. Heaven for breakfast toasted and lavishly buttered.

“When I took over running the business I knew we had a really good product,” Hickey says. “But we were only selling it locally and I really wanted to get it into Dublin. We’d have customers come down and they’d ask me, why can’t we get it in Dublin?

“So I got it into Morton’s in Ranelagh and Nolans in Clontarf – you know, high-end supermarkets that really appreciate quality products. That was a huge thing for me and now they buy them in huge quantities.

“For years I suppose we weren’t aware of how popular our brack was and we took it for granted. I was selling them only from behind our own counter. Then I went out of my comfort zone and started marketing outside of South Tipperary and I was surprised that people knew about it before I’d even talked to them. ‘That’s the famous brack from Clonmel,’ they’d tell me.”

Covid was a double-edged sword for Hickey’s. On the one hand, Nuala had to close down the successful coffee shop she’d managed since her teen years due to a combination of lockdown and skyrocketing costs.

On the other, Hickey says that it refocused shoppers’ attention on local merchants. “During lockdown, people were in their homes and I suppose they remembered to support the local businesses that were open and they remembered that Hickey’s was actually a bakery. The coffee shop had been so successful that it had consumed the business. The poor bread counter got neglected.

“But we bake fresh bread every morning and people started remembering that’s where the bread came from, the bakery and not just the supermarkets.

“I feel very proud that we have lasted four generations. People walk in the door and every time they have a story. Maybe about my grandmother – that they’d come in, buy their bread and pay at the end of the week, or pay at the end of the month. And they’d say to me ‘Oh my god, your grandmother kept us in food when we had nothing.’

“Or they’ll tell me a yarn about my father ‘Wait till I tell you a good one…’ He was a real character, always there with a glint in his eye.”

The pandemic also rekindled a desire for traditional tastes. “I think people got nostalgic,” Hickey says. “I’ll be doing a tasting and people will taste the barmbrack and tell me, my grandmother used to make a brack just like that.

“There’s a huge sense of nostalgia around traditional cakes like barmbrack and Christmas cakes and Christmas puddings. With all of the modern desserts and everything, you know it’s the traditional ones that have the memories, don’t they? It’s comfort. It’s food memories.”

Despite rummaging through her office, Nuala still can’t immediately locate the handwritten recipe for her mother’s Christmas cake and it obviously bothers her. Though it is sold only over the counter in Clonmel, for her it seems to be just as dear as the barmbrack that is the bakery’s calling card.

“It was a funny thing, but the year my mom died, in 2019, that springtime just on a whim I entered that Christmas cake in the Great Taste awards. Mom died in August and two days later the results came out and we got two stars for her Christmas cake.

“I took that as a sign that they’re all still up there watching out for me. It was like a finger pointing me in the right direction.”