The Folklore of Butter

Sylvester Cassidy, first published in Out and About in Killererin, 2007

Author - Sylvester Cassidy
Photo: Bernadette Connolly
Mary Roche Feigh demonstrating butter-making in Barnaderg Community Centre, 2009
Photo: Bernadette Forde
Margaret Tighe demonstrating breadmaking skills in Barnaderg Community Centre, 2009
Photo: Bernadette Forde

Many of the old customs which found their way into Irish folklore were connected with the first day of summer, May 1st or Lá Bealtaine.  Traditionally, this was the day cattle were brought to summer pastures on the mountains, where the grass was supposed to be greener and gave butter a better taste.  They were usually accompanied by the entire village to the ‘buaile’.The girls would live on the mountainside churning butter while the men remained in the lowlands.

Fairies and Witchcraft

Cows, milk and butter were supposed to be affected by fairy influences and witchcraft occurred at May eve and May day more particularly than at any other period of the year.  A bonfire used to be lit and when almost quenched, it was a common practice in Connacht at least, to drive the cattle through the ‘griosach’ or warm ashes as a form of purification and a preservative against witchcraft, fairies, murrain1, loss of milk butter and other misfortunes or diseases.  Cattle were also put in an enclosed paddock and carefully watched during the night, particularly milch cows calves and heifers for if anyone was to “milk three teatfuls in the name of the devil or even go through the form of milking the spancel, there would be a Flemish account of the butter for the next twelve months”

Wells merited special care at May time.

Wells whether blessed by a saint or consecrated by pilgrims “rounds” were objects of special care and attention at Maytime,  They were frequently watched all night to ensure they were not being skimmed with a wooden dish or cupán by some butter-stealing hag as the sun rose on May morning.  This was called ‘taking the flower from the well’ and the words ‘come butter come’ were then repeated.  Farmers drove their cattle by daybreak to the wells so that they would drink before those of their neighbours and therefore give a better milk and butter yield.

In 1850, when Sr. William Wilde, father of Oscar Wilde, was collecting folklore to be put in book form, a farmer wrote to him about a story his grandfather told him.  He caught an old woman on a May morning at a spring well, cutting the tops off watercress with a pair of scissors uttering strange words and the names of certain persons who had cows and also the words “is liomsa feath do cholda-sa”.  But the cailleach fled, leaving behind a lump of butter and a cow spancel.

On May day, it was unlucky to give away even in charity,  a drop of milk or a bit of butter or lend the churn, churn dash or any of the apparatus or furniture used in churning, believing that all their butter would be stolen the following Summer by the witch who came in disguise.  If a hare was found among the cattle, the farmer would try to kill it, thinking it was some old witch trying to milk the cows thus having for the next twelve months in their churn, the butter of all the cows they had milked.

May morning rush to churn

Before sunrise on May morning, every farmer who could, tried to get his churning done.  Churning was a ceremony always taken with some degree of risk, owing to the evil influence of witchcraft..  The churns were first blessed with Holy Water.  Those present then blessed themselves and some prayers were said e.g.

“Bless the cow that gives the milk,

Bless the milk that gives the cream

Bless the cream that gives us butter,

Bless us O Lord, Amen.”

The cream would have been stored for some days in large crocks before it was churned.  Making a churning could be a protracted task, depending on the nature of the cream.  Fresh buttermilk was in big demand after a churning as it was supposed to be a health-giving drink.  The churn was made by a cooper.

Butter-making

Butter making was always a serious business which didn’t end when the churn was washed and put away.  Before being removed from the churn, the butter had to be perfectly ‘grained’. – thick and ready for moulding – then it was removed and washed several times in clear, cold water.  Butter workers took the drudgery out of the washing in the early 1900s.  A grooved surface sloping away to a drainage hole took the surplus buttermilk (bláthac) from the butter as the roller was turned.  Less efficient was the butter-press which squeezed water from the butter when pressure was applied.  Once the butter was ‘clean’ butter pats were used to mould it into pound shapes, butter balls or wedges, on to which an emblem was imprinted with a special butter stamp.  Some emblems were symbolic and special to the family, but the majority were roses, thistle heads or swans or even grazing because that merely enhanced the appearance of the butter when it was being sold.

Luck played an important part in butter-making

Luck played an important part in butter-making, for the business was fraught with unseen dangers.  Periodically, the fairies were blamed when anything went wrong such as butter that wouldn’t ‘break;’ which was actually caused by milk not separating properly due to ‘heavy’ weather.  A neighbour who called during butter-making was always expected to say “God bless the work” on arrival and then work the dash or crank handle  (depending on the type of churn) before leaving, so as not ‘to take the luck.’  Beggars were sent from the door during the churning and told to return later  and if a neighbour requested the loan of a tool or vessel for whatever reason during the butter-making, he was considered bad mannered.

The door was always closed and if anyone entered by mistake, whether stranger or one of the family, they were at once invited to “take the dash” if only for a few minutes.  To refuse would be unlucky.  There were many means taken by the farmer’s wife to ensure success and to gather a plentiful ‘muschán’ of butter such as putting a coal of fire and some salt under the churn, inserting a piece of charmed paper between the hoops, even nailing an old ass’s shoe to the bottom of the churn dash.

Averting danger

The great means of averting danger was in getting a sapling of the mountain ash or rowan tree at May eve and bound around the churn before the churning started.  They were also suspended from the rafters in an attempt to keep all kinds of evil away.  Every vessel containing milk or butter was also encircled with carefully peeld switches of the same material.  St. Brigid’s crosses were also used and were hung close to where the churning took place as well as in the cow-byre in an attempt to ward off the charms of the hag.  Holy water from various Holy Wells were sprinkled on the animals at Easter time.

Many folk believed that the milk from a red cow as superior to that of the milk from any other, no matter what the breed and the ‘red poll’ (a hornless red cow) was highly prized.  The thick yellow beestings (post birth, yellowish coloured mmilk) was often valued above the milk itself and was a favourite when making eggy pancakes.  Suspicious people offered it to the fairies instead, leaving it in a shallow dish by a lone bush to appease the “wee folk”.

Old hag seen gathering dew

If an old woman was seen gathering dew in a sheet or with her hands on a May morning, she was suspect and was probably putting a churn by which she could steal the butter of all the cows that grazed on that pasture.  Therefore, it was only right that a farmer walked on his land on May morning to watch for trespassers on sinister missions.  The dew was gathered with a cowhair spancel – a tether for tying a cows’ front legs together during milking –  which the hag had previously stolen from the farmer’s cowbyre.  By uttering the words “Come all to me”, as she collected the dew, she played a charm on the spancel.  Afterwards, while she secretly gloated, the farmer’s wife spent hours churning in vain.  The hag’s churn however overflowed with butter.

Old hag believed to be disguised as a hare

In some areas, it was firmly believed that the hag worked in disguise, usually that of a hare, sucking the teats of victim cows so that they would produce only creamless  milk for the remainder of the year.  There was another way of butter stealing and that was to follow the milch cow and the four tracks made in thearth and gather the ‘clauber’ that stuck between the clefts of the feet.  Should a set of these be acquired the farmer could expect a poor return of butter for the next twelve months, but if procured by the owner of the best, no-one could harm the cow or interfere with the butter yield.

St. Brigid’s Day and New Year’s Eve customs

On St. Brigid’s day, February 1st, a sheep was killed and mutton, milk and butter were given as gifts to neighbours and friends.  Shrove Tuesday was Pancake night adn the custom goes back to the days of the “Black Fast” during Lent.  On this night, people had to use all their eggs, milk and butter in the pancakes.

On New Year’s eve, another lucky custom was for young boys to leave slices of bread and butter outside the door of every house.

When churning was done..

When a churning was made, the butter was taken from the churn and placed in a butter dish (mias ime) which was made of wood.  In this dish, the butter was prepared for use.  Spring water was used to wash it and salt was added.  Two small wooden spades were invaluable when preparing the product adn a butter print as already mentioned which was also made of wood, brought a delightful brand to life on the roll of butter now ready for salt at the market and in shops or for home use.  country butter was a firm favourite for years in Ireland because of its fine quality and flavour.

It was customary to take a small portion of unsalted utter after making a churning and to stick it on a board which was fastened to the kitchen wall.  The butter was left on the board until a mould appeared.  This moulded butter was used for treating any kind of skin ailment such as cuts, scrapes, as well as preventing and killing infection.  55).

Penicillin

An extraordinary thing about this is that the Irish were in fact using what is known today as ‘penicillin’ many years before it was discovered by Alexander Fleming (1881 – 19Since its its discovery in 1929, it has proved to be a wonder drug and it was of immense value in the World War.  Sir Howard Florey developed Felming’s discovery and introduced penicillin to clinical medicine in 1940.

Dairy produce

White meats or dairy produce have a long history in Ireland.  Cheeses of various flavours, butter curds and buttermilk, as well as fresh milk and cream were consumed in vast quantities throughout history and even today the Irish country people are very fond of butter, milk and cheese.  Butter was made in every farmhouse and when there was a surplus, wooden tubs of it were buried in the soft, antiseptic earth of the bog.  It was preserved there, slow to turn rancid but sadly often forgotten about, for turf cutters have frequently unearthed tubs of butter over the decades and were pleasantly surprised at how fresh the butter smelled although few tasted it! ……….

Butter-making

Over the years, two important chores have evolved in the country home – dairy work and the weekly wash.  In ancient times too, butter and cheese making were important chores, but they were relatively straightforward tasks compared to the dairy work known even in our grandmother’s time.

Butter making required more of the housewife’s time, more of her energies and sometimes more space that the house allowed.  A new dairy might have been built depending on the number of machines and vessels involved.  It’s amazing how many different kinds of churns were brought on to the market at the turn of the century and how many vessels and miscellaneous tools were known for this specific chore.

Dairy work

Not every farmer could afford to build a dairy, so in the vast majority of cases, the dairy work was done in the coolest corner of the kitchen.  However, before the actual dairy work would commence, the milking had to be done and until recent times, this was always the woman’s work.  Yet, it was considered an indelible disgrace for a woman to sell butter.  It was regarded as a  sign of abject poverty.

As mentioned previously, one of the biggest worries in many areas was to prevent the local hag from stealing the butter.  The heinous crime was not committed in the usual way, but through the work of special charms invariably carried out in secret on May morning.

Method of Butter-making

Generally, butter making was a weekly chore, unless the farmer had a lot of cows, a well equipped dairy and sold butter in large quantities.  The milk had to be three days old before churning could commence.  The cream was skimmed from the top and ladled into a second vessel, then covered in muslin while it ‘ripened’.  The milk left behind in the earthenware crock was known as skimmed milk.  By the arly 1900s, the milk separator was a feature of most dairies for it saved a lot of time by eliminating the overnight ripening process. A centrifugal force within the machine separated the lightweight cream from the heavier skimmed milk so that they poured out through separate channels.  Once the cream was ready, churning could begin.

Different types of chuirn

This was accomplished with one of many different types of churn.  By far, the most popular was the dash or plunger – so called because the operator plunged the agitator (dash) downwards into the cream.  It was stave built and varied from two to three and a half feet in height and the shape varied enormously from narrow cylinders and splayed vessels to pot-bellied varieties.  Generally, they were bound with irons or with bonds and had their lids fitted in place with two iron clasps.  The agitator, also known as the beater, the staff and the stick as well as the plunger and dash had its handle protruding through a hole in the centre of the lid.  The beating end varied from region to region – sometimes a round disc with holes, sometimes a cross shaped H shaped piece of wood.

Other early churns included the swing churn suspended from the ceiling and pushed about to agitate the contents.  There was also the rocker churn which agitated the cream when rocked furiously.  The former was used almost exclusively in the area around Lough Neagh while the latter was an introduction from England.  Very large churns worked by orse-power, were often seen in the big farmhouses.  They were probably the first to disappear when the creameries were set up around the country because the big farmers with the substantial hers were the first to bring their milk to the creamery ending a great tradition that brought a great richness to our culture and folklore.

(The author’s piece on Bog Butter has been extracted from this article and appears in a separate article on Bog Butter.)

  1. antiquated term for various infectious diseases affecting cattle and sheep. It literally means “death” and was used in medieval times to represent just that.
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