Evidence for butter making in Ireland dates to early times. Bog butter has been found and dated to 1000BC. The butter was stored in the bog before the convenience of modern refrigeration. Butter is an important natural source of fat and energy. In times past many houses in rural Ireland, even those not on a farm, would have had a small piece of land - enough to grow some vegetables and keep a cow for milk. The milk produced by the cow was used by the household and frequently the milk was used to make butter. It was not so easy to just pop to the shops when you needed milk or butter!
Butter making was just one of the many household jobs seen as women’s work. Usually one day a week was set aside for butter making. Fresh milk was poured into open containers and the cream was left to rise naturally. This could take approximately one day and there was always the risk that the cream could spoil, especially in hot weather. Once the cream had risen to the top it was skimmed off by hand. From about 1890 this was done using a mechanical separator, invented by de Laval – still one of the worlds biggest producers of milking machines.The cream was then left to mature for a time, covered in a muslin cloth.
After about 3 days it was ready for the next stage of the process – churning. Earlier churns called Dash Churns were stationary and had a stick called a dash that was worked up and down through a hole in the lid to form the butter. At this stage, the liquid part of the cream separates from the solid butter into buttermilk – which was used as a drink or in baking, much as it is today. Study of butter churns by historians have identified different shaped churns based on regions in Ireland. Later in the 20th Century a new type of churn called an end over end was introduced. This wooden barrel churn was revolved on a timber stand or cradle. A small window on the side allowed the maker to check on the progress of the butter without having to open the lid.
Forty turns per minute was a good rate for butter making. A rhyme or churning song was often recited when churning. An example of one such song is: Come, Butter comeCome, Butter ComePeter’s standing at the gate,Waiting for a buttered cake,Come, Butter come Before the craft of butter making in the home disappeared altogether, a glass jar churn was invented. This churn had a glass body with a metal lid with paddles attached. Early glass churns were worked by hand and in time electric motors took some of the labour out of the process. Once finished churning the butter was placed on a wooden dish. It was washed several times, salt added and then formed into blocks using timber butter pats.
These butter pats were also used to make individual butter balls for serving at the table, especially when having visitors. If the butter was going to be sold it was formed into one-pound blocks, stamped with the makers personal decorative stamp (much like manufacturers brand their products today), and wrapped in greaseproof paper. These butter stamps or butter prints as they are also known as were made by woodturner. Sycamore was the preferred wood due to its clean look and hard-wearing nature. Also, it did not discolour easily. Butter stamps came in a variety of shapes such as the circular one currently on display at Tipperary Museum but also eye shaped. Eye shaped stamps were thought to protect against ill luck associated with the evil eye. Large quantities of butter were stored for transport in a firkin – a wooden barrel, with a hole in the top that was filled with salt water, to help prevent spoiling. The firkins and smaller pounds were brought to the towns Butter Market to be sold.
Here in Clonmel we can still tell where the Butter Market was, as a date plaque is on the wall of the building and a coffee shop of that same name stands on the site today. This trip to town to sell the butter was also used by the housewife to do her shopping.Butter making was often a skill passed from one generation to the other and frequently not written down so could be a matter of trial and error. Within families there was a sense of pride in making better butter than one’s neighbours. A family’s method was a closely guarded secret. In 19th century Ireland and indeed in the early part of the 20th century people feared anything that they thought might affect the quality of their butter.
As a result, sometimes strange rituals were carried out during the butter making process. It was believed that these rituals known as butter luck ensured quality and helped ward of the fairies. A mix of pagan and Christian prayers were said aloud during the churning process, as well as the aforementioned churning rhyme or song. Cows who produced the milk needed for butter making also had to be protected. This could be achieved by placing a St Brigid’s Cross over the door of the cow house, saying prayers, and blessing the cows with holy water.
The tradition of blessing animals on May eve continues to this day. Another way of protecting the butter was by spreading unsalted butter on the wall of the butter making room. The churning process had a number of superstitions associated with it too. Some sprinkled salt over the lid of the churn, others placed a red-hot iron under the churn and some even advocated using the hand of a recently executed man to stir the milk in the butter churn!People did these actions without questioning as they had heard stories growing up of bad luck and ill deeds of the fairies.
They did not want to risk anything happening to their produce – it was their food and also a source of income if they were selling their butter. It is difficult for us to understand their superstitions, but they did not have the benefit of science, engineering, technology and knowledge that we enjoy today.
Pictured below of some examples of butter churns as well as some butter pats.