One autumn morning in Eyre Street in 1972, school going children had a special treat. There, spread on the road, were trays of breads, cream cakes, scones and chocolate éclairs. Hardly able to believe their eyes they fell on them. With shouts of joy and laughter they stuffed their mouths and filled their pockets before running off to tell their friends to come and help themselves.
They probably did not notice the van driver, a young Gerry McSweeney, trying to pick up the scattered cake from the road.
Gerry had just joined his mother’s bakery and restaurant business. The restaurant was in Williamsgate Street, but the bakery was in Mary Street (where O’Donnellan and Joyce auctioneers is today ). Gerry’s first job every morning was to collect the freshly made breads and cakes early, and deliver them in the company van to the shop. Unfortunately the van had seen better days. The back doors were ‘locked’ by a piece of string.
Gerry liked to take the steep hill at Eyre Street on his way to the restaurant. This particular morning he noticed to his horror, in his rear-view mirror, that the doors had swung open. He made the fatal decision of accelerating suddenly thinking that was the quickest way to get to the top of the hill. It was. But he left the day’s merchandise behind him on the road.
Today the Galway Bakery Company, known to generations of Galwegians as the GBC, is still very much a family business. It has a warm, pleasant atmosphere, that people enjoy and immediately feel at home. It is a busy, clattery place with the smell of coffee and breakfast in the mornings, enormous sandwiches for lunch, and tasty and comfortable food throughout the day. It is not a Michelin star restaurant, nor does it strive to be. It is a traditional restaurant in the best sense, where food is served with care and attention, and it tastes lovely.
The business thrived
It was Gerry’s mother Vera who really built up the business. Gerry’s mum and dad ran the Ash Memorial Cinema in Tralee, which was brilliant for their children, Gerry, Andrew, Jacintha and Rose, who could get in free. But events quickly changed all that. Gerry’s father died suddenly when the children were young. Vera found it difficult to keep things going.
Her sister Kathleen had married a successful Tuam businessman, Michael Cahill, who had opened a small bakery in Galway in 1936, exactly 80 years ago. He sold its produce from an equally small shop in Williamsgate Street. The business thrived. Its breads were sold all over the county. When Michael died his wife Kathleen took up the reins, and asked her sister in Tralee to come to Galway with her family to help her.
It all worked out well. When Kathleen died Vera was well able for the challenge. She expanded the shop into a restaurant, and made the brave decision to get out of the bread baking side of the business. At that time, in the mid 1960s, competition was hotting up. Bolands, Pat The Baker, and locally, LydonHouse, were supplying bread all over the city and county. To compete with the Big Boys would have necessitated hugh investment in new machinery, and premises. Instead Vera bought Michael McDonagh’s grocer shop next door, and expanded the restaurant.
Just as the restaurant was really doing well it was severly damaged in the sensational city centre fire on August 16 1971. Many Galwegians remember that day. For a time there were real fears that the fire was out of control. Army engineers were preparing to blow up buildings to stop it spreading. As it happened Vera and Gerry were on holiday in Bantry. Suddenly they were called to a phone by a fireman actually in their restaurant office shortly before it was destroyed. “You’d better get back f****** fast,” he shouted. “ The town is on fire!”
Thankfully there was no loss of life. Many people now admit that the fire gave shop owners the opportunity to rebuild the centre of the city in a modern way. Vera did not waste time. A year later a new GBC restaurant opened, Gerry had joined his mother at the helm, and I am sure a new delivery van was bought. Today Gerry runs the company, helped by his wife Bríd and their daughter Vicky.
It is Galway’s oldest restaurant, and one that has a special place in my memory. My birthday treat as a small boy, was upstairs in the GBC. I could order anything I liked. It was always the same. Sausages and chips, a Club orange, and incredibly, an amazingly delicious chocolate éclair...thick chocolate generously spread over choux pastry, stuffed with vanilla cream.
I can still taste it today!