An Irishman's Diary

FROM years ago, I remember a catchy cartoon advertisement that was often seen in Dublin cinemas, about Johnston, Mooney & …

FROM years ago, I remember a catchy cartoon advertisement that was often seen in Dublin cinemas, about Johnston, Mooney & O’Brien, the bakery firm, then in Ballsbridge. The characters were spindly but the jingle was one of those musical melodies that once it’s lodged in your brain, it simply refuses to remove itself.

For a century, Johnston, Mooney & O’Brien had a vast bakery enterprise in the heart of Ballsbridge, complete with a shop, close to the bridge, that sold tempting bread and cakes for picnics in nearby Herbert Park. It had been built on the site of the early 19th-century Duffy’s calico mills (from a previous great industrial activity in Ballsbridge).

The bakery firm had its origins in the early 19th century and was made up of three separate bakeries, which came together in 1889. The Johnstons were a family from Kircudbrightshire in south- west Scotland, who emigrated to Dublin in the 1820s and promptly set up a bakery in the city. Mooneys and O’Briens, on the other hand, were much more “ real Dub” bakeries. Today, the same names are also renowned as those of a trio of recently famous Irish cricketers.

It was a huge concern and the Ballsbridge bakery, at the height of its prosperity, employed 500 people. Its horse-drawn carts were a familiar sight around the city for years; many gardens in and around Ballsbridge benefited from the natural manure. That was until in a very early manifestation of green power, the bakery introduced battery-driven bread vans. They had another claim to fame, too; they were the first bakery in Ireland to produce wrapped sliced pans.


I often wonder about the expression “the greatest thing since sliced pan”. What did people use for comparative purposes before Johnston Mooney & O’Brien brought out the first wrapped bread?

The bakery in Ballsbridge closed down in 1989 and moved to a new location in Finglas. Much controversy erupted over its Ballsbridge site and its subsequent redevelopment. The Herbert Park Hotel now stands where that enticing little bakery shop once functioned. Next to the hotel were the offices of Cablelink, which moved, over a decade ago, to East Point and transmogrified itself into UPC. On another part of the old bakery site, there are newspaper offices, a new phenomenon in Ballsbridge, those of the Irish Daily Mailand the Irish Mail on Sunday.

Johnston Mooney & O’Brien is of course still trading successfully today, far removed from its Ballsbridge origins. It’s in what was once the Downes Butterkrust bakery in Jamestown Road, Finglas.

Another old establishment in Ballsbridge generated loads of controversy in its latter days, the Hospitals’ Sweepstake. Started in 1930, it was soon scooping in so much money than within eight years, it was able to move into vast new headquarters in Ballsbridge, designed in a very modern style and billed at the time as the largest office space in the world, built on the site of Ramsay’s Royal Nurseries.

Upwards of 5,000 people, mostly women, toiled there, sorting Sweep tickets in readiness for the majestic draws, when the tickets were plucked from the drums by white- uniformed hospital nurses.

The first crack in the edifice came in 1973 when a reporter called Joe McAnthony revealed what really went on inside the Hospitals’ Sweepstakes. It turned out that less than 10 per cent of the cash generated had been going to hospitals, while the three founders and their families were enormously enriched. Joe McGrath, one of those founders, had close links with the old Irish Glass Bottle company in Ringsend and Waterford Glass.

McAnthony's report in the Sunday Independent, one of the first instances of investigative journalism in Ireland, caused such uproar that he was forced to work for the rest of his career in Canada. Two recent books on the subject, one by Marie Coleman, the other by Damien Corless, revealed the unsavoury behind-the-scenes story of the Sweep.

The Sweepstakes carried on until the National Lottery was established in 1987. The Sweepstakes may have been swept away, but controversy continued for a long while after, over payments to the many elderly women who had worked there for years. When the premises were demolished, all that was preserved was the hardwood flooring. These days, the name of the Sweepstake lives on in the subsequent developments on the site.

In present day Ballsbridge, right next to the Horse Show House pub, is a red-brick building once called, with great originality, the Red House. Once, there were recording studios here, where the Sweepstake programmes on Radio Éireann were recorded, with When You Wish Upon A Staras its signature tune. They and the studios are still well remembered by the likes of Val Joyce, once a familiar radio voice, now retired.

Yet another firm that traded for years in Ballsbridge also went the way of the Ballsbridge bakery and the Sweep, the Swastika laundry in Shelbourne Road. It had been founded in 1912, when the Nazi symbol was an innocent motif with Sanskrit links, long before it was sequestered in Germany. But its delivery vans, decorated with the the swastika, trundled around Dublin for years. On one memorable occasion, the renowned German writer Heinrich Böll, was nearly knocked down in Dublin by a Swastika laundry van. For one awful moment, he thought that the Abwehr had set up a branch in Dublin.

The Swastika premises, long since taken over by the Spring Grove laundry company, were demolished nearly a decade ago and the Oval development put up on the site. The old laundry chimney is still there, wrapped inside the Oval, but without the old swastikas that once adorned its sides.

Ballsbridge has changed immensely, especially in the past 10 to 15 years, but somehow, a little of those three astonishing undertakings can still be sensed in the air around Ball’s Bridge, its original title, named after a man called Ball who ran a mill here in the 17th century.

For many years, what is now Merrion Road, outside the RDS, was called Ball’s Bridge Road. It was all a far cry from the present connotations of Ballsbridge, the luxury embassy belt.