Reeling in the yeast – An Irishman’s Diary about Dublin’s most enduring shopkeeper

John Moreland of the Irish Yeast Company

John Moreland: started work at 16. Photograph: Frank McNally

John Moreland: started work at 16. Photograph: Frank McNally

 

John Moreland spends his days surrounded by baking equipment and decorations, designed to help people celebrate all their important occasions. But a major milestone in his own life passed recently, unmarked by even a cake.

It was 75 years ago, in the summer of 1940, that he first started working behind the counter of the Dublin shop known, then and now, as the Irish Yeast Company.

He was 16, and had just left school with an honours Inter Cert from Westland Row CBS. The long-term plan was to study accountancy. In the meantime, he was helping out in the premises over which he’d been born.

Then his father suffered a stroke. And instead of an accountant, John became a permanent fixture in the family shop. Three-quarters of a century later, now 91, he’s still there.

There’s not much yeast involved in it these days. He stocks a little of the imported, dried variety, mainly for home baking. But it’s nothing like the old days when the Morelands sold the fresh, Irish-made product, wholesale only, and needing to be careful that it didn’t fall into the hands of the country’s many freelance alcohol producers.

Yeast was very central to Irish life then. John remembers the early war years when the country still depended on England for supplies and the government feared bread shortages if a local alternative wasn’t found.

His father was consulted, advising officials that Cork Distillers were interested in setting up a yeast production facility and should be helped do so. That duly happened. A national baking crisis was avoided.

But after the war, John himself was central to a shift in the family trade, away from yeast and towards cake-making equipment and accessories.

The new, broader business thrived during an era when Dublin hotels and cafes all had specialist decorators (“almost artists”, as he says) on their staff. Then that too waned, and with it the extended lease of life it gave shops like Moreland’s.

In recent years, another staple of the iced cake trade has melted away – home baking. People don’t have the time or inclination any more, and related businesses have suffered. John names several in and around Dublin that used to be in the same trade. One by one, they’ve all disappeared. He’s the last man standing.

While we were chatting on Tuesday, a woman entered. I stepped out her way on the small shop floor, but she said she was “just looking”. And sure enough, for a few moments she browsed the display of cake boards, figurines and “edible wafer roses”, all with the proprietor’s meticulously neat hand-printed signs. Then she left without buying anything. That must happen a lot.

The shop interior is certainly worth a look. Not only is most of it original to a business founded in 1890, the proprietor pointed proudly to two small, ornate pillars behind the counter and told me I was looking at the entrance lobby to the old George Hotel, from the 1870s and 1880s.

The shop could have become a hotel again, in modern times, when the Westin was redeveloped alongside it during the Tiger years. But Johnny Ronan made the Morelands (John’s brother Christy was still alive then) an offer they had no difficulty refusing.

And there’s a certain irony in the family’s unchanging presence at 6 College Street for so long.

Its neighbour on the other side, Doyle’s pub, has also been expanding. Only the Yeast Company resolutely retains its original shape.

Most of the businesses John remembers from the 1940s are long gone, including the “high-class gents outfitters” at number 8, once owned by the family of Maureen O’Hara.

Speaking of movie stars, that was an era when it wasn’t unusual to see Jack Doyle – the “Gorgeous Gael” – and his wife Movita Castaneda strolling past en route to the Theatre Royal. It sounds like something from a vanished civilisation now.

The Irish Yeast Company will vanish too soon. In fact, it might have closed when Christy died in 2006, until friends persuaded John to keep the shop going “as a hobby”. He now opens two mornings (Tuesday and Thursday) and three afternoons (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) a week. One of these days, he says, he’ll “jack it in altogether”.

There were seven people employed in the business at its peak. Now it’s just him. He has no children “and even if I had I wouldn’t recommend this to them”. But he’s not complaining either: “We enjoyed 50 years of good business here. You can’t expect things to last forever.”

@FrankmcnallyIT