Hughes, Bernard (‘Barney’) (1808–78), master baker, entrepreneur, and liberal reformer, was born 8 July 1808, second among eight children of Peter Hughes, probably a tradesman or labourer, and Catherine Hughes (née Quinn), of Blackwaterstown, near Armagh. Bernard, known as ‘Barney’, was brought up as a devout Roman catholic and spoke both Irish and English fluently. He started work, aged 12, as a baker's boy in Armagh and c.1822 tried unsuccessfully to set up his own bakery. To enhance his career prospects he moved to Belfast in the mid 1820s and became a journeyman baker. He soon proved a highly skilled and reliable worker and in 1833 was appointed operations manager at the Public Bakery, Church St.
Hughes was a great admirer of Daniel O'Connell (qv) and was part of the delegation that met him when he visited Belfast in 1840. However, his employer did not share his views on liberal reform, and strained relations led to Hughes setting up his own bakery in December 1840. Hughes must by then have already gained a reputation as a highly respected citizen in Belfast, since he was able to borrow £1,400 for the new factory that was built at 71 Donegall St. This proved a wise investment, as within two years his factory produced more bread than any other bakery in the town. Demand for his loaves and his famous ‘Belfast bap’ was fuelled by the thousands of poor catholics who migrated to the city in search of employment in the two decades before the famine.
Hughes was probably the first entrepreneur in Ireland to appreciate how machinery could create economies of scale in food production. He kept enlarging his factory by adding ovens (using his own patent design) and dough‐mixing machines, and in 1847 opened another bakery on Donegall Place, which became known as the ‘railway bakery’ on account of the rails that were used to transport raw materials by cart between various parts of the site. By using new technology he was able to produce large quantities of consistently high‐quality bread at prices that were up to 20 per cent cheaper than his local competitors. By 1851 he employed up to a third of those in the Belfast baking trade. He removed much of the human drudgery in the baking process, and higher productivity meant that his employees could sleep at home, rather than on the bakery floor. The population growth of Belfast continued to increase steeply after the famine years, and in 1858 he opened a third bakery on Divis St., in the Falls area of the town. Distribution problems during the 1840s had convinced Hughes that he needed tighter control over all elements of the food production chain. By the 1870s his empire included flour mills (among them the ‘model mill’ on Gilford St.), ships to import grain, a brewery, shops, and a fleet of horse‐drawn vans.
Hughes was an enlightened employer and throughout his life he gave generously to the poor in Belfast. During the famine years of the 1840s he kept the price of bread as low as possible, and on special days such as Christmas gave away thousands of loaves. In July 1842 he confronted a mob of up to 2,000 hungry and agitated weavers, who were intent on causing damage to his bakery, and convinced them that he was a friend of the people. This was borne out by the fact that he was the largest single donor to both the Belfast Relief Committee and the Belfast Relief Fund for Ireland during the great famine. Though he was not politically ambitious, he did feel that he could use his status – as one of the largest employers in Belfast and the wealthiest catholic layman – to promote the liberal cause. He was particularly appalled by the members of the way in which the members of the conservative‐dominated council were able to indemnify themselves against the £84,000 debt which they had accrued while in office during the 1840s and '50s.
Hughes was the first catholic to be elected to the Belfast town council (1855–8, 1871–2) and the first catholic alderman (1872–8). There were numerous attempts to smear his reputation, and articles in the Belfast News Letter lampooned his thick Armagh accent. As councillor he imprudently remarked on one public occasion that Belfast was ‘governed by protestants, but the bone and sinew of the town is Roman catholic’, and this was seized upon by his conservative adversaries as evidence of an anti‐protestant stance. In reality Hughes was always even‐handed and against any form of violent action. In his Smithfield ward there were large groups of poor catholics (in the Pound) and protestants (Sandy Row) in close proximity to each other, and this led to regular disturbances. As a JP (1867–78) Hughes urged fellow members of the Belfast Home Rule Association to avoid the tactics of the Fenians. In 1878 he was one of a group of magistrates who upheld the right of the protestant shipyard workers to hold processions in Belfast.
His fair mindedness sometimes brought him into collision with his more zealous catholic friends. In 1876 he was heavily criticised for supporting the campaign to have a statue of the Rev. Henry Cooke (qv), the presbyterian preacher with strong anti‐catholic views, erected in a prominent position in Belfast. Hughes contributed funds towards the Catholic Institute in Belfast (begun 1859, closed 1866), donated the site for St Peter's church in 1858, and paid for the Lady Chapel. Despite his generosity, Patrick Dorrian (qv), the coadjutor bishop of Down and Connor, vetoed a plan by the Vatican to award him a papal honour.
Hughes married first (c.1829) Jane, a presbyterian who converted to catholicism; they had three surviving sons, Peter, Thomas, and Edward. She died in 1847, possibly as a result of typhus. He married secondly (1849) Margaret, daughter of John Lowry of Dublin; they had three daughters, Teresa, Mary, and Roseann. Hughes lived on Lancaster St. (c.1840–c.1873) and then at ‘Riverston’, Holywood, outside Belfast. He died 23 September 1878 and was buried privately at Friar's Bush graveyard. His son Edward (later appointed the first chairman of the Irish News at its launch in 1891) took over the business and built a large ‘model bakery’ on a two‐acre site on the Springfield Road which was one of the largest and most technically sophisticated factories of its kind in Europe.