Up since 4am making bread - though I never wanted to be a baker!

As we continue our series on Cork’s Corner Shops, CHRIS DUNNE visits Chamberlain’s in Mitchelstown
Up since 4am making bread - though I never wanted to be a baker!

Seanie Chamberlain, owner, Chamberlain's Shop & Bakery, Mitchelstown, County Cork with some of the freshly baked traditional hand made bread. Picture: Denis Minihane.

WHEN you pass the open door of Chamberlain’s shop and bakery at 9, Lower Cork Street, Mitchelstown, the fragrant waft of bread and pastry entices you inside, where Kathleen O’Mahony, front of house, welcomes you.

Seanie Chamberlain invites me into the bakery at the back of the shop, which is bursting with activity as the massive machines magically make dough and pastry for fresh bread and luscious tarts for sale in the shop.

“Come back here with me and I’ll show you around,” he says.

“I’m up since 4am baking bread!” adds Seanie, who with his brother, Paddy, followed in his father’s footsteps as a baker.

The brothers had two sisters, Mary and Bridget.

“Even though my dad was a baker, we didn’t get to eat fresh bread, we only got what was left over!” says Seanie laughing.

“Isn’t that always the story?”

Seanie Chamberlain, owner, in front of Chamberlain's Shop & Bakery, Mitchelstown. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Seanie Chamberlain, owner, in front of Chamberlain's Shop & Bakery, Mitchelstown. Picture: Denis Minihane.

Seanie didn’t always want to be a baker and run his own business, he preferred playing music and entertaining people. He headed to the big smoke.

“After my Leaving Cert, I headed over to London,” explains Seanie.

“There was always music in my family, my daughter Sarah, who lives in Fermoy, is a music teacher.

“I played music in London in the pubs, I played the keyboard and I had a ball!”

What did he work at in London?

“I worked in all kinds of jobs, but never a bakery job. I never wanted to be a baker.”

Seanie met his wife, Mary, in London. They had two daughters, Sarah and Emma.

“Mary was a farmer’s daughter and she passed away 18 years ago,” says Seanie.

“Emma has special needs and she is at home with me in Georges Street. She is a cool dude and she works one day here with me and she works one afternoon in SuperValu. Emma goes to the Cope Foundation four days. Sarah worked here too in school holidays. I have three grandchildren, two boys and a girl.”

Seanie and Paddy were partners in the business.

“Paddy and I worked here in the bakery and he passed away two and a half years ago at the age of 84.”

Seanie Chamberlain, owner, outside Chamberlain's Shop & Bakery, Mitchelstown.
Seanie Chamberlain, owner, outside Chamberlain's Shop & Bakery, Mitchelstown.

How did Paddy persuade Seanie, who was having a ball in London, to return to Mitchelstown and go into business with him?

“Paddy worked all over the world as a baker,” says Seanie.

“He phoned me one day from Newcastle and told me there was a business for sale in Mitchelstown, Finns, on the main street. He said to me, would we buy it?”

Paddy had powers of persuasion.

“He persuaded me to come back; I loved London in the ’50s ’60s and early ’70s; it was mad, but we had good innocent fun. It was a great place to be.”

But Mitchelstown was buzzing too.

“You had the bacon factory and the cheese factory here, so it was a busy, buzzing town,” says Seanie.

“It was flying. Lots of shops around had their own bakery back then.”

The brothers set up shop in what was previously a bakery.

“There was already a bakery business here,” says Seanie, who is keeping an eye on the dough rising for the bread which is in the process of a second proving in a big heated cabinet. The racks are lined up for the bread to cool and then shelved in Chamberlain’s shop out front.

Seanie Chamberlain.
Seanie Chamberlain.

“We bought the machinery bit by bit,” says Seanie, aged 82.

“Some of it is older than myself! I used to supply a lot of shops in the area; now I supply two, O’Sullivan’s in Kildorrery and Reidy’s here in Mitchelstown. We have a lot of local trade and passing trade.”

No wonder business is brisk. Rowena, from Lithuania, takes out a batch of mouth-watering apple and rhubarb tarts from one of the large ovens, ready for sale.

“I am in Ireland 16 years and working here in Chamberlain’s seven years,” says Rowena. “It is a lovely place to work. I know a lot of the regular customers. And I live upstairs.”

She is woken then every morning by the sweet smell of freshly baked bread?

“Yes, I am!” says Rowena.

“I love working here and Paddy was like a father to me. He was the most kindest, nicest man you could meet. I miss him.”

Seanie, who has baked his way through several sacks of flour since 4am, takes a well-earned break.

He is expecting other visitors later this morning, the first-class pupils of CBS who are very interested in how bread is made.

“I’ll give them a bit of dough each to roll out,” says Seanie.

What is needed to make good dough?

“A strong pair of hands and lots of kneading,” says Seanie.

“The more handling and pounding, the better. When my dad served his time in McInerney’s, he made the dough by hand. The bread was only one commodity they sold in the grocery store.

Seanie Chamberlain with Kathleen O'Mahony, shop assistant. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Seanie Chamberlain with Kathleen O'Mahony, shop assistant. Picture: Denis Minihane.

“I use strong protein flour and the dough is proven five times. That makes the bread very tasty with a strong flavour.”

What time does Seanie knock off work?

“I’m here from 4am until 12pm,” says Seanie. “Then I fall down asleep!”

So its early to rise and early to bed?

“Sometimes!” says Seanie.

He has another occupation too.

“I’m involved in the brass band here and I conduct the band,” says Seanie.

“We’re hoping to get back playing next month.”

Is Seanie glad he came back from London to open up shop with his brother in 1973?

“I’m glad I came back,” agrees Seanie.

Is he glad he is a master baker nearly 48 years?

Seanie laughs.

“It’s a nice business and we’re surviving all right.”

Kathleen, serving behind the counter in the shop, has a surprise for me. The juicy apple tart straight out of the oven is still piping hot.

“Take that home with you and enjoy it,” she says.

Indeed I will - and, like the first class pupils from CBS, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Chamberlain’s bakery and shop, meeting baker Seanie, Rowena, and Kathleen, who make a great team.

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