Bealtaine or May Day was once an important landmark in the Irish calendar. The first day of summer, it heralded the start of the fresh grass season and cattle, which had been sheltered in byres over the winter and spring, were put out to pasture. By this time farmers had completed their spring work, such as tilling the soil for crops, and were beginning to turn their attention to turf-cutting.
The period between May Eve and May Day was greatly associated with superstitions around butter and butter making. It was believed that those who wished ill on their neighbours could, by magic, steal a household’s ability to produce milk and butter at this time. One way of doing this was to drink the May Day morning dew from a neighbour’s grass or to drag a rope or piece of cloth through their grass chanting “Come all to me, come all to me”. The result was that the neighbour’s cow would produce little or no milk, or that the cream from the milk could not be churned into butter. And so, people were particularly vigilant on May Day morning and suspicious of anyone lurking about near their farms. Hares, too, believed to be shape-shifting witches, were chased from the land on May Day.
Domestic Butter Making
In times past, almost everyone living in rural Ireland owned a milk cow. The task of milking was traditionally carried out by the woman of the house, who sat on a low stool called a ‘creepie’ and milked the cow by hand into a pail. The milk was then poured into a large earthenware crock to cool. After a few days, the cream was skimmed from the top and ladled into a second vessel and left to ‘ripen’. The milk that was left behind was known as skimmed milk.
Once the cream was ready it was turned into butter using a device called a churn, which was a barrel-like container with a lid and a vertical plunger, or dash. The size of the churn depended on the number of cows in the household. Churning, as it was know, usually took place in the kitchen. Before churning, the churn was scalded with hot water, scrubbed with salt, and then cooled with spring water; the water swelled the wooden staves so that the cream wouldn’t leak from the churn.
The cream was then poured into the churn. By hand, the plunger or dash was moved up and down, fast at first and then – as the butter formed – more slowly. Churning was hard work and everyone was expected to take a turn on the dash. Anyone who visited the house while churning was taking place was expected to say ‘God bless the work’ on arrival and put their hand to the churn.
The cream gradually thickened, before becoming part-solid (butter) and part-liquid (buttermilk). The sour buttermilk was put aside for drinking or baking. The butter was removed from the churn, placed in a wooden dish and was washed over and over in clear spring water. When the butter was clean, salt was added for taste and preservation. Finally, it was shaped using special wooden butter-pats. The churn was then cleaned and put away.
The butter was consumed by the family and any excess was sold or bartered. If for sale, the butter was often marked using a special butter stamp with an identifiable symbol so that the buyer would know who made the butter; for a variety of reasons, some cows were better milk producers and some butter makers were more skilled than others.
Writing in 1820, historian James Hardiman noted that: “The small farmers in the vicinity of the town [Galway], but particularly those in the west liberties, and for some miles along the sea coast, principally supply the town with milk and butter. The latter is in general sweet and well-flavoured, but that produced on the estate of Barna is peculiarly so, and always commands a good sale in the market.” Within living memory, butter from Galway’s rural hinterland was sold at the market adjacent to the Collegiate Church of St Nicholas.
Why not try this butter-making experiment for yourself?
Click on the link below for step-by-step instructions and ENJOY!
James Hardiman (1820) History of Galway
Séamas Ó Catháin (1980) The Bedside Book of Irish Folklore
Kevin Danaher (1972) The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs
Olive Sharkey (1987) Old Days, Old Ways
E Esytyn Evans (1989) Irish Folkways