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The Tierworker Ceidhle House (May 1, 2011)

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 By Richard Barber, submitted to Philip Donnelly’s Blog April 2011.

In the good old days, (that is before rural electrification came to Tierworker in the mid-1900s) as with everything else, butter was made mainly by hand. I t was a long and tedious task, from the cow milking to the butter being harvested. After milking, the milk was strained through a piece if linen cloth which was specially reserved for the job. (In later years proper strainers were produced. They were shaped like a big funnel but with a wide, fine wire mesh bottom). Milk was then collected in large earthenware vessels called crocks and left to go sour. The crocks contained about three gallons each, were left in what was called the parlour to go sour. Up to four or five crocks could be there at any one time, depending on the milk production.

Milking was always done by hand, no milking machines in them days. I always remember when my Mother was milking she would always be singing to the cow, and coming in with a bucket-full of warm frothy milk. Something she taught me when I started milking was to put a little cross on the near front teat when finished, something I always did till the end of my milking days.

 The churn for making butter was of a very specific shape. Like an odd-shaped barrel, it was made by the cooper, and was wide in the bottom and narrowing in to the shoulder then widening out again for about nine inches to the top. There was a lid with a hole in the middle where the dash, as it was called, went through. The dash was a long shaft with a round two inch thick piece of wood about a foot in diameter with holes so that the milk could get through.  The churn would hold about thirty gallons if filled. Great care had to be taken in the preparation of the churn, always thoroughly scrubbed with a brush, and then sterilised with lots of boiling water - the only sterilising fluid in them days. The crocks of sour milk was brought in from the parlour and poured into the churn. Only the top layer of cream was used. The whey was left to feed animals. The churn was never more than half full to leave space for churning.

Churning was usually arranged for dinner time when the workers would be in. Churning was performed by simply pounding with the dash up and down till the cream turned to butter. That could take anywhere between thirty minutes and an hour. Everyone was expected to take a turn with the dash, and it was considered very unlucky if a stranger came in and did not take a turn at the dash. I can remember standing on a three legged stool to do my turn as I was not tall enough to reach the dash .The butter formation depended on the milk being near a certain temperature so hot water was added. A spoon was used to skim milk from the dash shaft to keep an eye on the progress.    

With the churning finished, the butter was all skimmed from the top of the buttermilk and put on a large flat board, and with two butter paddles which had fine groves on them,  one long and one much shorter, the butter was patted for some time to remove all traces of milk. Salt was added mainly as a preservative and to add taste. Butter was then placed in the coldest part of the house, as there were no fridges in them times either. There was nothing nicer than a big tin mug of fresh buttermilk to drink, but it had to be just churned because after a few hours it would be very sour and thick again. The buttermilk was used to feed calves and pigs, and of course bread making which is another story. In olden times an ingenious way to preserve the butter was to put it in a wooden tub and bury it in a peat bog, proof of that was that turf cutters have come across the tubs hundreds of years later and the butter was still believed to be edible.     

 As time went by and more milk was being produced, it was sent to Bailieboro` Creamery. The milk was sent in galvanised drums, called creamery cans, supplied by the Creamery, but I expect that the farmers had to pay for them. They were of eight and ten gallon sizes. Numbers were painted on each can to identify which farm they came from.  Like the churns, the creamery cans had to be properly cleaned. Any trace of milk from the previous day would turn the milk sour, and the milk would be returned by the creamery as unusable. Milk was regularly tested for butter fat content, and that would determine how much was paid for the milk.

 When I was young, the milkman who took the milk daily, with a mule and cart, was called Old Curran. He lived on the corner of Moyhill cross (I think he was named Packie). As time went by and the supplying of milk became more popular (and Packie was getting on in years), the job of collecting the milk came into the hands of Teddy McCabe with a tractor and trailer. Teddy could take much more than the mule and cart. As Teddy kept to a more strict time schedule, the race would be on to have the cows milked in time. Often, we would be trying to cool the milk in a tub of water as it was necessary to have the milk cool before adding it to the previous night’s milk.

 With the increase in the supply of milk, Teddy graduated to a milk tanker drawn by the tractor. After I left Tierworker, and milk supplying became big business, with lots of cows to be milked, it was not possible to milk all the cows by hand any more (it took about eight to ten minutes to milk a cow depending which one you got as some were a lot easier to milk than others) . The boys had a milking machine installed. A milk tank was put in a shed and the milk piped direct from the cows to the tank. This system made it possible to supply more milk and more cows were added to the heard. At this time supplying milk became a very lucrative business and lots of farmers getting into the supply line, with the result that the creamery was being over supplied with milk and a limit was put on each farmer as to how much they could send to the creamery in the form of a quota. Some time later the milk was collected by a motorised tanker from the creamery, and I don’t know what happened to Teddy.  Gradually, as with other things, producing milk became unprofitable, with the result that the cows were not milked any more and the cows were left to feed their own calves.

 The farm has now totally diverted to producing mainly beef and no milking at all. When I go home and see the lads going to the supermarket to buy a plastic bottle of milk for the tea, I think back to the time when hundreds of gallons of milk were going out every day, O how the times have changed!  


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The Eyes That Shone - from Ireland to Canada in the 1950s

But a word of warning! The Eyes That Shone is not a saga filled with horrible tragedy and dysfunctional relationships, but rather a celebration of family lives in Ireland and Canada, in other words, a happy story featuring:

  • Memories of life on small farms in Ireland before 1950 and before tractors and electrification, when growing food depended largely on human sweat and muscle
  • Recollections about people and events in the Department of Public Works of Canada where the author worked during the period 1957 to 1991
  • Intimate perspectives on living and dying, politics and religion, home and family