Spreading the story about butter - how Cork's Butter Museum is bringing a 'uniquely Irish story' to an international audience
Ireland's dairy sector delivered export earnings of close to €3.4bn last year; an impressive performance, and one which vindicated the faith placed in the industry by the architects of the Food Harvest 2020 expansion plan.
However, this is not the first time that dairying has played a crucial role in the country's rural economy.
From the early medieval period, dairy herds and their produce were the country's primary economic drivers.
Indeed, the Gaelic lords and the more Gaelicised Anglo-Norman barons measured their wealth by the number of cows they owned up to the early 1600s, while two centuries later the Cork Butter Exchange became a major hub for the international butter trade.
The fascinating story of this long association with dairying, and the economic activity it spawned, is skilfully told by the Butter Museum in Cork
Located in the historic Shandon area of the city, the museum details the dairy cow's importance in early Christian and Gaelic Ireland, and goes on to outline the international significance of the nearby Butter Exchange of the 1700s and 1800s.
In addition, it demonstrates and explains the traditional craft of home butter-making, and examines the importance of the creamery in early 20th century rural society, before tracing the ground-breaking success of the Kerrygold brand.
In the course of this story, the commercial, social and domestic life of rural Ireland is recalled.
The museum has been in existence since 1997 and is currently headed up by Peter Foynes. A history and English graduate from UCC, Peter recently completed a graduate diploma in heritage interpretation at the University of Leicester.
He is clear on the role and importance of the museum: "Our function is to help keep the heritage of the country's dairy industry alive and to illustrate the importance of butter to the economic development of rural Ireland."
This mission statement explains the museum's involvement in four scholarly publications on the dairy industry - including the excellent 'Butter in Ireland - From Earliest Times to the 21st Century' - and two oral history projects, on the 50th anniversary of the Irish Dairy Board and the Munster Institute.
In addition, the museum is currently involved in developing an innovative schools project built around the history of butter-making.
However, it is a working museum first and foremost that attracts around 16,000 visitors each year.
Given that the exhibits and content are predominantly of Irish interest, it is somewhat surprising that just a quarter of visitors are Irish. A further 40pc are European - mainly French and German - with 20pc coming from Britain, and the remaining 15pc from North America.
Described by the New York Times as "engaging and multi-faceted", the Butter Museum tells a uniquely Irish story to an international audience.
Traditional butter-making equipment such as churns are a key element of the museum's displays. There are also examples of the firkins or wooden casks used to export butter from the Butter Exchange in Cork during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The development of the dairy sector in the 20th century is also explored, and the story is brought completely up to date with an informative audio-visual presentation on the industry since the early 1960s.
A display which invariably sparks interest is the extensive range of local creamery butter wrappers from the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
This includes wrappers from creameries that have long since closed as independent entities such as Black Abbey Creamery in Adare, Co Limerick or Castlelyons Creamery in east Cork. Also on display are wrappers from Caherciveen in Kerry, Drumcliffe in Sligo, Ballieborough, Co Cavan, and all creameries in between.
Away from the modern, the museum deals with the Irish practice of preserving butter in bogs, and uses a keg of thousand-year-old butter as the centrepiece of a display on food and society in medieval Ireland.
A central aspect of the museum is the growth of the Butter Exchange in Cork, the international trade this institution controlled, and the 'butter roads' which developed to supply this foreign demand.
The museum displays explain the importance of the Butter Exchange and the novel role it played in establishing Irish butter as a global brand in the 19th century.
Obviously, the recent growth in dairy exports has a historical precedent.
Enhancing the visitor experience
The Butter Museum is aptly located beside the impressive entrance to the old Cork Butter Exchange. Although the buildings date from the mid-19th century, the exchange was established in 1769 to regulate the burgeoning butter business out of Cork port.
Exports of butter out of Ireland had been steadily increasing from the late 1600s, but had grown significantly during the economic boom of the 18th century.
Dairy produce provided much of the Gaelic diet and 17th century sources talk of people producing an array of sweet, sour, thick and thin drinks from milk.
In addition, salted and unsalted butters were a staple food, as well as a variety of cheeses. In fact, the English visitor, John Stevens, described the Irish in 1690 as "the greatest lovers of milk" he ever saw.
As the 18th century progressed, dairy farming became increasingly prevalent in Munster, with the primary produce being butter for export. This was transported to Cork in 56lb barrels called firkins.
The trade out of Cork was controlled by the Butter Exchange which was run by a Committee of Merchants. The members of this body undertook not to engage in the shipment of butter unless it had been publicly inspected, graded and branded.
This code of regulations was enforced by means of fines and possible expulsion form the trade where necessary.
"The Cork merchants were the first people in the modern period to grade food before selling it," museum director Peter Foynes points out.
Their efforts ensured that Cork butter was Ireland's first global brand. By the early decades of the 1800s the Exchange virtually monopolised the butter trade with the West Indies and Brazil, with Cork butter also developing lucrative markets in Britain and Australia.
It was supplied by more than 70,000 farmers and sales totalled around 400,000 firkins a year, valued at around €1.5m in 1875.
However, the development of the mechanical milk separator in 1879 heralded the beginning of the end for the Cork Butter Exchange.
The variable nature of Irish hand-made butter was no match for the consistent quality of Danish creamery product, and Irish exporters steadily lost market share on the vital British market. The seasonality of Irish supplies was a further problem.
The Cork Butter Exchange continued into the 20th century but was overtaken by developments in the industry - such as the development of the co-operative creameries and the continued fall-off in exports to Britain - and finally closed in 1924.
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