As in other prehistoric and early historic tribal societies across the globe, group aggression, when it broke out in ancient Ireland, was local and limited. Custom required Irish nomad warriors to conduct cattle raids, creach, on their enemies. The life-sustaining cow became indispensible to survival, and various superstitions, rituals and good-luck tokens became attached to it to ensure constant and high yield.
From medieval times in Ireland and up to the eighteenth century, cows were herded to mountainside “booley” camps for summer pasture. As potatoes increasingly supplemented dairy in diet, the prospect beckoned of selling surplus milk and dairy products, aided by the expanding dairyman system. Wooden churns and dashes, bowls, crocks and pats appeared as everyday kitchen implements, with swing, barrel and end-over churns used as alternatives, although the purpose of butter parcels retrieved from bogs remains a mystery.
Munster’s climate and soil produced plenty of nourishing grass for the quarter of Ireland’s milch cows farmed in the province. The small robust Kerry breed gave a high yield and was experimentally bred with others, like Dexters and Ayrshires. Bigger tenants of landed estates hired families on year-long contracts to maintain their animals, thirty on average, to be paid in kind, either directly in milk or by bringing butter made from that milk to Cork to sell on the herder’s behalf. Cow-owners fed animals during winter and supplied dairy equipment to the small farmer, who could keep the buttermilk to feed his pigs. This was the dairyman system. With Cork’s market booming in the 1800s, dairymen started collecting cash for leasing cows and land instead.
The brainchild of Eric Peard and launched by Tony O’ Reilly in 1997, Cork Butter Museum covers the history of the industry from household to international reach, through audio-visual records, documentary, demonstrations and artefacts. It stands where the Cork Butter Market used to be, in Shandon, formerly Mallow Lane, in the city centre. Archaeologist Dr Colin Rynne was the museum’s first curator, and his 1998 guide The Sign of the Cow (crowning the market portico was a plaster-cast cow’s head) is a fine study of the market. Some farmers resented the monopoly of the Cork Market, which made non-negotiable difficult demands on its clients: the subject of the lament Caoine Dhiarmad ’ic Eoghan.
Cork Butter Market dates from 1730. First outdoor, it got indoor premises when custom flourished. From 1769, the newly-created Cork Committee of Merchants, operating from the former Shandon Castle grounds, took the market’s fortunes into its own hands. Renaming it Cork Butter Exchange in 1770, the committee laid down far-sighted rules for integrity of transaction and quality. It became impossible to deal without going through these checks and balances, despite them being voluntary. The market was significant enough to appear in Guy’s 1893 map. Cork butter, made in tumbledown cottages across Munster, became a brand universally trusted and coveted.
Peasant farmers made their way to the market from counties Cork, Limerick, Tipperary and Kerry, with a few hardwood barrels strapped with straw rope to the backs of donkeys or horses or by cart, to auction their butter to the highest bidder. The trip was made despite rough roads, whether it took a day or a week, regardless of the weather. It was important. Many travelled together for protection, especially as carrying cash made them targets for thieves. It was customary for visitors to Shandon to set their watches by the tower-clock, and so they “brought the time home”.
Butter exports from Cork roughly trebled between 1680 and 1780. Throughout the nineteenth century, nowhere exported more butter worldwide. Cork Butter Exchange reigned for 150 years as chief butter provider to Ireland, Britain and across four continents. At its 1880s prime, the market weighed, inspected and branded 500,000 casks per year, valued at £1.5 million. Irish butter prices were called each day at London’s Commodities Market.
Bought from Dominicans and opened in 1855, the Firkin Crane roundhouse is next door to the museum, where, before deciding on one of several grades, inspectors used to feel, smell and taste butter, brand tare (empty weight) and gross cask weight. This was part of the unique bundle of quality control measures that catapulted Cork butter to commercial superstardom.
Though “firkin” is Danish for quarter-barrel (nine gallons or eighty pounds of butter), the word became generally associated with the containers, watertight timber casks held together with metal hoops. These were used since the 1630s in Ireland, keeping hundreds of master coopers in employment. Cask dimensions were decreed by parliamentary acts from 1698. For guaranteed quality at fixed prices, buyers began to charge a modest brokerage fee to send firkins to small Munster farmers. Promissory notes were strictly honoured.
The balance on which tarred casks were weighed, and, from 1707, branded, was called The Crane. From 1715, local authorities had to inspect firkins and confiscate unfit units, and, six years later, had to employ public weigh-masters and arrange municipal weigh-houses. The inauguration of the first weigh-house in Shandon improved the area. The second, on Cork’s North Main Street, was less accessible and went into fatal decline.
Despite Cork having plenty of rivers, and being Ireland’s largest coastal county, only two tiny canal sections were built by 1800. Butter traders relied on roads for overland transport of their precious cargo to Cork until the 1850s, when the railway system transformed mobility. Since about 1600 and before county councils were formed by the Local Government Acts of 1898-99, forty Irish grand juries (one for rural and eight for urban counties) imposed taxes to maintain roads and bridges. Road improvements could be suggested by anyone. On approving a “presentiment”, grand juries could apply for funds from the county “cess”, or rates. This system gradually subsumed gravelling, contour design and repair contracts.
Straight-line design of new roads between market towns became compulsory under a 1739 Act, to prevent landlords always getting their own way. The terrain challenges of building straight were offset by advantages. Roads with gates (turnpikes) and toll houses were made a possibility from 1729, subject to usually Protestant landlord groups petitioning parliament. Dublin became reachable by this means from Cork in 1731, and a road linked Newcastle (West) to Limerick and Cork.
With presentment roads free, people tried to avoid paying tolls on turnpike roads, leaving them neglected until mail-coach traffic made regular expenses-paid trips after the Irish Post Office started operations in 1783. The reasonable road system in place by 1800 was partly responsible for the butter market’s success. By the time Cork Butter Exchange came into existence, Ireland’s third turnpike road, or the Butter Road as it later came to be known, had for twenty years been connecting Cork city to Kerry, especially popular Killarney. A detailed 1747 Act specified “repairing the roads leading from the City of Cork through Millstreet to Shannah-mill [Rathmore] …to Killarney; as also from Shannah-mill to Castleisland to Listowel …@
Fifty-six miles of straight road, with turnpikes, nine large bridges and fifteen small ones, to be financed by tolls collected over sixty-one years, were agreed. The propertied trustee applicants commissioned talented builder John Murphy to get this more direct and secure shorter route finished in eight years. This northern approach to Cork avoided densely-populated areas and beat the southern isolated and far more limited Glenflesk to Cork road. Non-payers, toll-avoiders, evaders of road labour, and those carrying self-cut wood faced stipulated penalties. An eventual series of bridges spanning the Lee further ameliorated congestion.
Murphy delivered but ran hugely over budget, to the tune of £4,500. His project would cost millions now. His attempt to charge tolls provoked Cork Corporation’s displeasure, and he had to compete with a new turnpike road to Kanturk from 1765. After he turned to parliament for assistance just around the time the Irish butter industry was going stratospheric, he died in obscurity. Butter Road income would probably have saved him.
Engineer surveys were required for the presentment system from 1817. Before designing the new butter exchange, John Benson was Cork East Riding’s county engineer from 1845. Dublin engineer Richard Griffith was sent to Munster in 1821 to roll out a relief programme after farming emergencies and White Boy uprisings. Griffith fine-tuned 243 miles of cross-country roads, taking thirty-six miles off travel between Listowel and Cork City, and days off other journey lengths. He followed the English design of making roads usually 32ft wide with cross, back and guard drains.
Width and boundaries unchanged down the years, Murphy’s road finally attracted custom once free trade with England was announced. Increased traffic nurtured development. A small village of one inn, a mill and five small cabins in 1736, Millstreet could claim a main street with side-streets and three hundred houses a century later. Roughly twenty-five miles either side from Cork, Killarney, and Castleisland, Millstreet also joined Mallow and Kenmare. At a big flat stone called The Kerryman’s Table a few miles outside Millstreet and towards Rylane, still identifiable by a plaque, Kerry butter-sellers trekking to Cork rested, shopped and passed butter to buyers going to market.
Grand juries took turnpike roads under their wing when trusts were dissolved in 1857. These guardians of Ireland’s bóthair, or cattle paths, managed the enlargement of the country’s overland road network for most of Cork Butter Market’s existence. In 1997, Aubane Historical Society published an informative commemorative book on the 250th anniversary of the Butter Road. Included are observations on the butter trade and state of the country by well-to-do tourists passing through, but none by the mostly suppressed Catholic peasant butter-makers. These accounts suggest challenging conditions.
From 1679 to 1759, England would not buy Irish butter but once protectionist trade barriers came down in the late 1700s, Irish butter sellers responded to the green light and headed for Cork, England’s number one transatlantic shipping port and Ireland’s second city. The lifting of trade barriers promised a business boom. To optimise success and informally regulate trade, twenty-three butter-exporting merchants met in a coffee-house to form the above-mentioned Cork Committee of Merchants in March 1769. Their interventions were crucial. Frequent rotation of chairmen and members discouraged corruption. They commissioned Thomas Deane to design the Commercial Rooms as their headquarters.
The Committee agreed in 1770 to introduce trained inspectors for grading quality and supporting weigh-masters. More grades were added to three initial separately priced butter grades. Fifth and sixth grades were, essentially, grease. The fourth was obscurely dubbed Bishop’s grade. Barrels were watertight for overseas transport, some with salt pickle for preservative. Butter packing fuelled a city salt industry, linked to lime production.
In 1820, the constitution of the Cork Committee of Merchants was amended to allow usually rural butter manufacturers seek membership. Around 1830, the weigh-master’s spot on Church Street was enclosed and covered. Two decades on, the Butter Market was upgraded into a brighter larger space, more like the English Market, facilitating inspection and boosting turnover rates. When the Firkin Crane was ready for weighing and branding, only inspections, carried out on deliveries day and night, were conducted in the exchange.
Porters wrote owners’ initials on incoming firkins with chalk. Inspectors probed contents with a borer, and judged colour, consistency, texture, freshness and saltiness. Most inspectors were coopers, not dealers, and while paid, they functioned independently. Each morning, they jointly drew lots to decide which section A, B, C or D, each of three, and later five of these inspectors oversaw. Porters then etched grade codes, once decided, as vertical and transverse lines on firkins, along with symbols for weight, tare, and cask condition. Brands changed monthly, discouraging fraud.
With a road network better than that of many equivalent English ports, the city became the focal point for the world butter trade, dealing in 66 per cent of it by 1774, up from 38 per cent in the 1720s. The volume of beef handled too earned Cork the nickname of Ireland’s slaughterhouse. The birth of Limerick Butter Market diverted some Cork sellers, and covered markets in other towns caused a hiccup but, despite deregulation in 1829, Cork Butter Exchange kept ahead, and still catered to about 80,000 farmers and 400,000 firkins in 1880. John Benson’s extension to the market, and new facade in 1849, coincided with worrying competition from Europe. Although having money and being able to trade along the Butter Road during The Famine were bonuses, butter demand waned and Cork’s supremacy started to fray. Export agents started their own blending factory in the city, which consumed most third- and fourth-quality butter. The price of butter fell.
At an 1879 butter-making demonstration of de Laval’s centrifugal separator in Cork’s Corn Market, Irish farmers saw the future. Turning at 6,000 rpm, the machine could separate cream from thirty gallons of milk in fifty minutes: a job previously taking days. A mechanical butter worker from Hildesheim and Lawrence’s “capillary” refrigerator on show also impressed.
With Canon Baggot’s joint-stock Limerick creamery starting out in 1884, butter merchants and others followed with independent privately owned creameries. Starting with just one in Drumcollogher in 1889, by 1905 the country could boast three hundred co-operative creameries by 1905. The advent of domestic refrigeration, cheaper substitutes like margarine and butterine, and the birth of the Co-operative Creamery Movement encroached ominously.
Co-ops did away with the middlemen, giving farmers more control. They were the brainchild of Unionist MP Horace Plunkett, who also set up the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society. British military personnel closed all creameries in 1921. Many had already been burned down to smoke out rebels.
Legal adjudication on the exchange’s destiny in 1884 by Ireland’s Chief Justice, John D Fitzgerald, prohibited restrictions and exclusivity. All brands could equally compete. Tolls and advertising bans had little impact. Following two concerned government reports on the status of the business, Cork’s renowned Butter Market was finally shut down in 1924, despite the exchange’s remaining single inspector still processing a third of Irish butter exports in 1919. The building was destroyed by fire in 1976, after being used as a hat factory from the 1930s. With grants, Cork Corporation refurbished the site where the Shandon Craft Centre opened in 1984 and later, the museum.
The rebuilt Firkin Crane now accommodates the Irish National Ballet, and the Butter Exchange Band still performs. In the 1960s, the Dairy Board (An Bord Bainne), renamed Ornua in 2014, recovered much of the butter export market, especially with Kerrygold.
Much of the above is drawn from At the Sign of the Cow: Cork Butter Exchange 1770-1924, by Colin Rynne, published by Collins Press in 1998.