The Walsh family have been handcrafting breads, cakes and pastries in Clifden for six decades.
Walsh’s Bakery was started by Tom Walsh, a qualified craft baker from Headford, County Galway. His father had recommended baking as a trade saying that “it would be one that was unlikely to go down”. Tom took heed of his father’s advice and went off to train at a bakery in Glin, Co. Limerick. After gaining additional experience in the trade in England, Tom returned to Headford to open his first bakery. Tom’s brothers joined him in the business as the bakery expanded with bread being delivered throughout Galway and Mayo counties.
Clifden was one of the towns on the delivery route and a customer named Mrs. Lydon-O’Neill suggested to Tom that he should buy her grocery since she was retiring. Tom could see the opportunity in starting a bakery in the lovely seaside town that was attracting many continental tourists even then. So in 1953, Tom moved to Clifden and set up Walsh’s Bakery at the rear of the grocery store with three bakers from the Headford bakery, one helper and a van driver delivering throughout Connemara and parts of Mayo. Two of the bakers went on to open their own bakery years later in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo called Western Pride, now Irish Pride.
The next year, Tom married Una Walsh, also from Headford. Una managed the grocery store with the help of the ‘The Luck Pennies’, Una’s name for her employees, Mary Fitzpatrick and Gerty King, who had worked with the previous owner and had stayed on with her. Una handled all the accounting for both operations and continued to do so until her retirement in 1998.
In the mid-1960s, Tom had a vision to expand the bakery and purchased a site across the road that was in a state of deterioration. Over the next decade, the four story building was developed to include all the bread production operations plus a dedicated confectionery area. The first Cake Shop was opened in a small storefront across the street in 1973. Una continued to operate the grocery and off-licence in the original premises.
The Next Generation
Every member of the Walsh Family contributed to the success of Walsh’s Bakery and Walsh’s Grocery Store. All five daughters and two sons entered the businesses from very early ages.
Ultimately, it was Tom’s son, Cathal, who took over Walsh’s Bakery. He remembers that one of his first tasks as a youngster was to pack bread rolls for the delivery trucks. Forty odd years later, he can still be found doing that occasionally. More likely you’ll find him on the lower two floors which house the bakery production facilities.
Cathal went to London for his formal bakery training at the Elephant & Castle Southbank Polytechnical Institute. He returned in the late 1980s to work with his father and progressively took over management from him.
“The bakery industry has changed substantially since my father started it 60 years ago,” states Cathal. “Bread was the primary product at that point – baking then delivering. In the late eighties, the Bread Wars started and the profit margin on a pan loaf was so narrow that we had to focus on other revenue streams.”
Unable to compete on price with the multi-national distributors of bread products, Cathal decided to join them. Instead of baking and delivering bread, Walsh’s Bakery bought in bread from Pat the Baker to be delivered throughout Connemara and Mayo along with an expanding range of Walsh’s rolls, confectionery and craft breads.
In 1994, Cathal married Joan Staunton from Loughrea, Co. Galway, who had come to Clifden to work at the Bank of Ireland. At that time, plans for the consolidation of all bakery and retail operations under one roof were under discussion. The four story building was redesigned to have the Cake Shop and the Coffee Shop on the ground floor, the bakery production on the bottom floor and the confectionery finishing in the middle. The top floor, which had been the confectionery, was converted into an apartment for the newlyweds.
Joan manages the bustling activities of the Cake Shop and the Coffee Shop. Gourmet coffees, hearty breakfasts, fresh handcrafted sandwiches on Walsh’s breads, hot lunches, salads and, of course, the delectable items made downstairs are served by the friendliest staff in a warm and woody environment with fireside balcony tables overlooking Clifden Bay.
Tom’s traditional recipes such as Homemade Stoneground, Vienna Bread and Berliner-style donuts continue to be big favourites, but now share the display cases with Spelt & Honey Bread and Chocolate & Raspberry Meringue Gateau. After almost 25 years as the Master Baker, Cathal is still fascinated by the organic nature of breads, as well as the exploration of the various flours and how the fermentation process achieves wonderful flavours. The wide range of pastries and cakes are constantly innovated with international influences from the confectionery team managed by sister, Una Jr., a patisserie baker who spent many years working abroad in Canada and Holland.
The Walsh’s Bakery story extends far beyond Clifden. Since the beginning, they have distributed their products throughout Connemara, Mayo, and more recently, Galway City. In the early days Walsh’s was among the few handcrafted food products available in the remote rural areas.
Cathal and Joan’s teenage daughter, Róisín, is already involved in the business, so it looks like a third generation may keep the family recipes delighting taste buds in the West for decades to come.