As we discussed in one of our previous blog posts, spooky stories and superstitions are a constant occurrence in nearly every part of Irish history. Surprisingly enough, one of these superstitions involves the old process of making butter (churning). It was believed that certain people who worshipped the devil possessed the power to take away your ability to churn butter. You would churn and churn for hours, but no butter would come out. The only product of your efforts would be a foul-smelling cream. To gain this power from the devil you needed to skim butter on a May morning before the sun rose. Whilst you were skimming the butter, you needed to chant a rhyme. After skimming, the piece of butter that was obtained from it would be placed in front of an unaware person’s doorstep. That person would then be cursed and lose their ability to churn butter. However, the curse could be lifted if the victim took the coulter out of the plough and burned it. That would then drive the devil out of your household, and you could once again churn butter.
Of course, this was never proven to be true, and it will forever remain one of many old and spooky stories from Irish mythology. But this is a prime example of butter having a significant role in the history of Ireland. But butter wasn’t important only in fairy tales, it actually played a key role in the Irish economy.
How Butter Came to Be
It all began around 2000 B.C. when the first cattle arrived in untamed Ireland. After that, milk quickly rose in popularity among the people that lived on the Emerald Isle. At the time, they used pots that were made from hardened soil to transport milk around. They transferred the pots in bulk, usually on big wooden carts. It was the time of rural Ireland, so the terrain was uneven, modern-day roads didn’t exist and that meant that milk would often spill. The drops of milk that were spilt would then transform into small chunks of fat. But if the journey lasted for a longer period, that meant that more milk would spill and that there were more fat chunks. The chunks would then cling together and form butter. These are the circumstances under which butter was discovered, but there are many different theories about how butter was discovered so we will never know for sure.
Over time, butter cemented its place in the lives of humans. After a while, the rocky roads and wooden wagons would be replaced with the wooden dash churn, so that every farmer could churn his own butter at home. And so, butter grew in popularity. That was especially true for Cork, as butter became the centrepiece of its economy.
So much so, that in 1769 a dedicated area was built in Cork City, and its only purpose was to serve as a meeting point for people that were selling butter. It was later named the Butter Market. Later in March of the same year, a committee of merchants was created. There were 23 exporters of butter in that committee. The committee had the important task of regulating the prices of butter that was sold and exported. However, they possessed no statutory powers (nor did they receive any for the remainder of their 115 years of existence). They even had 4 inspectors that classified the butter depending on taste, touch, and smell. The classifications ranged from first class to the sixth tier. Butter that was in the first tier was more expensive than butter that was categorised as the sixth tier.
The butter market was so important that they specially named roads that lead to Cork from the countryside. The roads were named the Butter Roads and they led straight to the butter exchange. The roads were constantly filled with farmers and traders who were bringing their produce into the city.
On a busy day at the height of the butter season, there could have been more than 3000 firkins (special wood casks that were made for transporting butter and also a measuring unit that was used in the mass sale of butter throughout England and Ireland) brought to the city. And all these firkins of butter needed to be inspected and properly categorized. The previously mentioned four-piece committee was tasked with inspecting the firkins and they were able to inspect and categorize anywhere between 100 and 150 firkins of butter per hour (that is between 2540 and 3810 kilograms of butter per hour).
Butter in Cork: A Key Commodity
By the year 1774, the Cork City Butter Exchange controlled approximately 66% of all Irish butter that was exported around to the continent and around 80% of all butter that was exported to America. These statistics have a lot to do with Cork City's enormous natural harbour (it is said that the Cork City Harbour is the “second largest natural harbour in the world based on the navigational area”). The massive harbour was a competitive advantage that Cork had, compared to other port cities. It was large enough to harbour the biggest transatlantic convoys, royal fleets, or whole naval squadrons. That meant that a large number of ships could quickly come into Cork, do their business and sail away without any significant issues when leaving the port and harbour.
By the 1830s ships from all over the world were sailing for Cork City Harbour to obtain the famous Irish butter. Most ships that sailed for Cork came from Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Spain and Portugal. Cork-branded butter was present all over the globe. It was even shipped to countries that were far away or countries that had a hotter climate. The West Indies, America, Brazil and Australia, to name a few. Then once they returned to their home countries, the sailors sold the butter at a higher price than it was bought.
But some of these destinations were quite far away from Cork. And without modern ships, these journeys would take ages. A journey from Ireland to America could take anywhere between 40 and 90 days, depending on the wind and the weather. And the sailors did not have the modern refrigerators and refrigerating methods that we use today. But the Irish butter withstood the journey. That had a lot to do with the way that the butter was made, which allowed them to transport it for such lengthy periods of time without it spoiling. The secret ingredient was salt. Irish butter was heavily salted and that kept it from going bad and it gave it the “endurance” to last the voyages. And with Ireland still under British rule, they exported a lot of their butter to the British market and the royal navy as well.
Butter was so important in the lives of Cork people that at the height of the butter exchange (somewhere in the 19th century) the local newspapers posted daily and weekly economic reports that were connected to butter selling rate. The reports were like today’s stock market reports. They would write about the quality of the inspected butter, how many firkins of first quality, and second quality was sold… the sale price etc.
Around that time the butter exchange peaked, as some reports state that by the mid-19th century around 30 million lbs (that equates to 535714.2857142857 firkins) of butter went through the Cork Harbour every year. Even during the Great Famine period in Ireland, Cork continued to export butter globally. Throughout that period Ireland remained the main exporter of salted butter for Britain. Since the day it opened its doors the Cork butter market operated as the main agent and leading force in Ireland when it came to the sale of butter.
Competition in Butter
However, all things are subject to change, and the butter trade was no exception to that rule. Towards the end of the 19th century, the price of Irish butter completely plummeted. To the people of Cork, this was like the crash of the stock market that happened on Wall Street. The butter exchange lost its significance in the world, and it lost its title as the biggest exporter of butter. The main reason that it came to this crash was the evolving European countries.
There were two key differences between Irish butter and butter that were made in mainland Europe. The first and most notable difference for your tastebuds was the amount of salt that was in the butter. Irish butter had to travel all over the world, so it needed to be salty as a way of keeping it preserved. That meant that by default every Irish person that was making butter at the time, had to make it salty. European countries weren’t exporting butter on a global scale, so they did not need to make their butter extremely salty. And the second key was the visual aspect of butter. The packaging in which the European kinds of butter came. As previously mentioned, the norm for Irish butter at the time was a firkin. But other countries sold butter in smaller and more convenient packages, that varied in design and amount of butter contained per pack.
By the late 1870s, the French began producing and exporting machine-blended butter. They were soon followed by the Danish who started making butter using centrifugal separation in special and dedicated butter-making facilities. They were moving ahead, and they were incorporating innovative technology and new methods into the old craft of butter making. That was the first nail in the coffin for Irish butter makers. They did not adapt to the new methods and technologies, and they fell behind in terms of modernising the process. Irish farmers were still the main producers of butter, whilst other countries had organised facilities and factories that produced only butter and nothing else.
And when they began using new machines in factories they could experiment with different flavours and textures of the butter they were producing. Not shortly after these “butter technology” advances were made, the British consumer encountered foreign butter. For years they have been used to the same, heavily salted Irish butter. But a whole new world of flavours was on the horizon. They were able to taste the blended French butter, or perhaps they wanted to try the lightly salted Danish butter. Whatever it was, it was a breath of fresh air in their taste buds, which were still salty from their morning bread and Irish butter breakfast.
Irish farmers tried to fight the new wave of European butter. One of the changes they brought into the market was butterine, a mixture of butter and margarine. But there was no use. The sales of Irish butter were on a steady decline, and the committee of merchants had their eyes on them. That is why they were dismissed from their positions. They were too old-fashioned and not open to modernising the process of butter making, so people came to see that they needed a breath of fresh air to help revitalise the butter trade.
A Butter Revolution?
So, that is why the control of the Cork Butter trade was handed over to the “new trustees.” They had a challenging task to face, as their main goal was to restore the position of the Cork Butter trade in Ireland and over the globe. They were meant to change up the way of packaging and producing butter, but most importantly it was hoped that they would be able to introduce consistency into the art of butter making and reduce the saltiness in butter.
However, their presentation of the lower salt idea did not sit well with farmers at first. There was resistance from certain farmers who did not want to adapt and produce butter using modern tastes and methods. Over time, the farmers started making butter less salty, but that is when another problem arose: the moisture content of the butter. The butter was too moist with the reduced amount of salt they were using, as they did not adopt the technique of butter making, they just used less salt.
The issue was later resolved with creameries. They first started appearing in Ireland in the late 1880s to adapt to the new industry standard of butter making. They proved to be a success, but they were too late to help Ireland reclaim the butter throne. The French were already more experienced in creating such butter, so the Irish butter makers had a lot of catching up to do, and eventually, it proved itself to be too difficult a task.
But the last nail in the coffin came with World War I, as it only widened the gap between the French and the Irish butter makers, and it accelerated the crumbling of the butter trade. Raymond Ryan, a professor at the University College of Cork said that “by the 1920s the Cork Butter Market was an economic anachronism, and all attempts to revive legal control of the butter trade showed how out of touch they were with modern economic life.”
And that is why in 1924 the Cork Butter Exchange closed its doors for good.
Today all that remains of the Butter Exchange is the Butter Museum in Cork City. It is a vessel that carries on the smell and the history of butter making. It is a great showcase and embodiment of the old times when butter played a key role in Cork’s economy. The building is the refurbished house in which the Cork City Butter Exchange once operated. And that is why, if you ever find yourself wandering in Cork City with nothing to do … make sure that you pay a visit to the Cork City Butter Museum.