Barney Hughes – The baker “beloved by the working classes”

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Barney Hughes Blue Plaque Belfast
Barney Hughes Blue Plaque Belfast


Early Years

Bernard ‘Barney’ Hughes was born in Armagh in 1808 to Peter Hughes and Catherine Quinn, who was from Backwaterstown in the parish of Clonfeacle.

By the age of 12 he was working as a baker’s boy and in the 1820’s he moved to Belfast.


Here Barney worked in bakeries in Church Lane and the Public Bakery in Church Street. In 1833 he was promoted to manager of this business. However, his employment here came to an abrupt end in 1840. Barney Hughes was a supporter of Daniel O’Connell and was part of the delegation to greet him when he visited Belfast. It came to the attention of Hughes’s employers that Barney planned to attend a dinner given in O’Connell’s honour. An ultimatum was issued – go to the dinner and you will lose your job. Barney’s allegiance to ‘The Liberator’ came first!

Barney Hughes Entrepreneur

Investment in his own Bakery

Barney Hughes was able to borrow money to establish his own bakery business at 71 Donegall Street. He was keen to introduce new machinery into the baking process. In March 1841 he installed an additional two ovens in his premises, this doubled production capacity so he could now employ two teams of bakers working in shifts.

By the early 1840’s his bakery was producing £600 worth of bread a week. This success allowed him to open a second site in 1847 in Donegall Square – known as the Railway Bakery due to the nearby tramlines.

Innovation and Expansion

By using technology Hughes was able to increase productivity and improve working conditions for his employees. His innovative ideas also meant he could sell bread more cheaply which was a blessing for the poor of Belfast especially during the Famine Years.

Hughes was an astute entrepreneur and decided to expand his control over the whole breadmaking distribution process. He bought mills and two ships to import grain. He used a fleet of horse-drawn carts to deliver baked goods to a wide range of shops including his own.

By the 1870’s Barney Hughes was the proprietor of the largest milling and baking company in Ireland. In 1858 he had opened a third bakery in Divis Street on the lower Falls – The Model Bakery. In later years this was described as –

“The place is constructed and equipped throughout on the most approved principles for the making and baking of bread entirely by mechanical aid. The product of the bakery is of the highest class, and is in very great demand, the vans of this firm being familiar objects in the streets of Belfast, as they pursue their extensive course of daily deliveries throughout the city and suburbs.”

Industries of the North 1891

Barney Hughes’ Business Success

Support for the poor, his workers and safety standards

Although employing nearly a third of all those involved in the baking industry, Barney did not abuse his position. He continued to sell his bread at a reasonable price, so that it was affordable for most families. Many of the people living in the crowded city streets had no cooking facilities, so bread was literally a life saver. Barney Hughes is most famous for producing the cheap but filling ‘Belfast Bap’, which is still a popular bread today.

Belfast Bap - from Rileys Home Bakery
A Belfast Bap – from Riley’s Home Bakery

In addition, Barney Hughes was a leading advocate for the abolition of night and Sunday work. Given that he had ‘risen through the ranks’ himself, Barney could understand and sympathise with his workers gruelling work schedules. By 1842 Barney and others, including the Rev Henry Cooke, had succeeded in their mission and the long established practice was given up.

Barney continued to work for reform in Dublin, citing the long hours and high mortality rate for bakers. After initial resistance from the master-bakers the Bakehouse Regulation Act was passed in 1863. This resulted in the improvement of safety standards and hygiene in the now regularly inspected bakeries and abolition of employees having to work overnight and sleep on site.

Influence on Belfast Life

Barney Hughes’ Political Career

Barney was an admired and respected figure in Belfast. He was outspoken in his contempt of the sectarianism that was dividing the city and proved himself to be a liberal and fair man to both Catholics and Protestants. He attempted to allay religious acrimony and gave evidence to the Royal Commission of Inquiry investigating the riots of 1857 and 1864. This earned him the long-lasting anger of the Tory elite in the city.

Barney Hughes was the first Catholic to be elected to Belfast town council (1855-58 and 1871-72) and the first Catholic Alderman (1872-78). Here he showed himself an unbiased advocate for the poor no matter what their creed –

“Nevertheless, Barney’s standing among the working classes on both sides of the community remained strong… It was his empathy, which bridged the denominational and political gap that led to his return to political office.”

Jack Magee, Barney Hughes of Belfast. 2001

Friendship with Rev Henry Cooke

Indeed, in 1876 Barney was criticised by the hierarchy of his own faith for contributing money towards the erection of a statue of the anti-Catholic Presbyterian orator the Rev Henry Cooke. Barney had met and worked with Cooke in the 1840’s over baking reform and while the two men held opposing views on almost every other subject, they seem to have had a mutually respectful and amiable relationship.

Charitable Works

Hughes was a generous benefactor to his adopted city. In 1888 he donated the land for the building of St Peter’s Cathedral. He also contributed to the construction of St Mary’s Hall in Bank Street. Barney was the largest single donor to the Belfast Relief Committee and the Belfast Relief Fund for Ireland during the Great Famine.

As well as consistently keeping bread prices as low as possible, on special holidays, such as Christmas, he donated thousands of his bakery goods to the poor and destitute of Belfast. Barney also shared his success by regularly producing extra large household loaves for no extra charge. He called this practice ‘douragh’ from an Armagh Gaelic word meaning ‘lucky’.

Promotion of Catholic representation in Politics

Hughes was aware that the large Catholic population of the town had very little voice in local or national politics. He therefore sought to have that voice recognised. In 1859 he and other prosperous merchants set up the Catholic Institute in Hercules Place.

“Their exclusion from the town’s public boards meant that better-educated and the few wealthy Catholics had little opportunity for intellectual and commercial discussion and stimulus. Some leading Catholic businessmen envisaged providing such a facility for those wishing to expand their horizons in debate, education, civic and recreation related activities.”

Jack Magee, Barney Hughes of Belfast. 2001

Subsequently, in July 1862, the same group formed the Ulster Catholic Publishing Company to print a newspaper that gave voice to Catholic views and political opinions. It was called the Ulster Observer and its editor was Andrew Joseph McKenna. Both these enterprises were to suffer from the disapprobation of local Catholic hierarchy.

Family Life

In 1829 Barney Hughes married his first wife Jane. She died in 1847. The couple had three boys Peter, Thomas and Edward.

In 1849 he wed Dubliner Margaret Lowry. They had three daughters Teresa, Mary Catherine and Roseann Mary Agnes. He died on 23rd September 1878 at his home ‘Riverston’ in Holywood, County Down. He was 69 years of age. His youngest son Edward took over the management of the business.

Bernard Hughes Headstone
Bernard Hughes Headstone

Barney is buried in the historic Friar’s Bush Graveyard in Belfast.

Barney Hughes Epitath

We remember Barney Hughes as a master-baker, successful businessman and a fair and liberal municipal politician. In January 1879, the Belfast Working Men’s Institute recorded Barney’s demise in their minutes with the epitaph “beloved by the working classes”.

He will be celebrated for his desire for social justice, his unstinting generosity and humanitarian reform, but also for the Belfast Bap immortalised in the children’s song ‘half a bap with sugar on the top’!

Barney Hughes Grave
Barney Hughes Grave in Friar’s Bush Graveyard

See Also: Friar’s Bush Graveyard

Friar’s Bush Graveyard has a fascinating history involving St Patrick, persecution, cholera and famine and body snatchers… Read more

Friars Bush Graveyard View
Friars Bush Graveyard View

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Gaby · 15 December 2023 at 10:15 pm

No paintings of Barney I take it?

    P&P · 15 December 2023 at 11:34 pm

    Not that we know of … We would have loved to have a better image for the post.

Arturo Melian Randolph · 15 June 2021 at 10:14 pm

I have just discovered your website and am fascinated by the articles!
So interesting and with a special emphasis for the most humble people.
Will follow you from now on! Keep up the good work …
Wish you had a Facebook page so more people could see your work.
Best regards, Arturo

    P&P · 16 June 2021 at 8:30 am

    Arturo, we have a FB page but not many followers to date – search for @belfastentriespage on Facebook and follow us. Its the easiest way to get notified of every new post as not all posts are accepted on the FB groups

      Geordy Austin · 21 September 2021 at 1:54 pm

      Wonderful story on the life and work of Barney Hughes,Thank you so very much.

        P&P · 21 September 2021 at 2:34 pm

        Glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for taking the time to give feedback.

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