The Butter Trade.



Butter has been an important item in the Irish family diet for as long as there have been records kept.  “White Meats” were referred to in early times and were a vital part of the Summer food of the family.  Cattle were the symbol of wealth of the farmer and cattle implied milk and butter production.  But this milk and butter were produced for local consumption and their only small trading was to local neighbouring village or town markets.


By 1750 it had become recognised that there was a need for a much more organised marketing arrangement to allow surplus supplies of butter from the agricultural areas to be used as the basis for selling a commodity for which there was a world wide demand.  An export trade started to grow, and this particularly in Cork City which was ideally suited for this because of it’s harbour, shipping, existing merchants and their skills;  and also the potential supply of its farmers in the surrounding areas.


There were many suitable merchants in Cork City who exported around the World already.  But they needed a new organisation which would have the capital, the knowhow and the contacts to provide the butter.  This was started slowly by a number of individuals who recognised this opportunity and gradually and quite separately started to fill this role.  They were called Butter Merchants, or more accurately, Butter Buyers.


One of these was Florence O’Leary born in Acres near Dunmanway, but who moved to Cork City initially to set up a small grocery in Barrack Street.  His father, Tadhg had come to Acres in 1729  from Uibh Laoghaire where the family had lived for hundreds of years.


Florence recognised this unique opportunity for setting up in this new trade alongside the grocery.  He was of farming stock;  he knew the farmers in Uibh Laoghaire; he was able to assemble sufficient capital to start off in a small way; and he soon got to know a number of exporting merchants in Cork who were keen to take part in this venture, and could help with the provision of further capital.


And capital was certainly needed.  The small farmers and dairymen were not in a position to provide it, and any capital they needed for other expansion was grudgingly put their way by landlords, who made a handsome return already and were not prepared to risk on a new venture such as this one.


The idea was that the butter buyer would provide horses and mules;  would supply the farmers with firkins to hold the butter, together with saddles and other equipment; would arrange the journey from the farm to the buyers business place in Cork; would grade the butter for quality, and then pay the farmer a price which was fixed for the year and according to that quality; and would actually pay the cash on the spot with no credit or other waiting.  At a later date, it also became necessary for the buyer to provide a banking service to the farmer to avoid the perils of highwaymen on the long return journey home.  The buyer would give the farmer a promissory note instead of cash and this became more valuable in those days than the paper produced  by Banks.


The Markets for butter which were available were mainly the colonial countries formed in recent years by England, Spain, Portugal and France.  One area in particular was the Carribbean Islands where there was a strong demand for highly salted butter.  This was necessary to survive the long journey times, but was also to the taste of the inhabitants of that area.  Initially the farmers of County Cork and Kerry could only produce highly salted butter, but the much higher prices available to supply the English and European markets, where a more lightly salted butter was needed, eventually caused the product to be adjusted accordingly.


Apart from the Carribbean the initial markets included export to Brazil, India, Australia and America.  The butter buyers purchased their supplies from farms all over County Cork and Kerry from small farmers and dairymen.  At this point of time, the butter was churned on the farm and then packed tightly into a wooden barrel or firkin.  Transport to the exporter in Cork City was by pack horse or mule with two firkins normally making up the load of the carrier.  The carrier was almost always the owner of the butter who wanted to keep tight control of his butter and the money paid for it. 


The butter buyer had access to a weighbridge in Cork, and a very sophisticated system of determining quality and therefore price of each individual firkin which was sold.  Together, these features made up a powerful and unique system available to the producers of butter, and only copied later in other parts of the Country, such as Dublin, Waterford and Limerick.


It is no coincidence that  great road improvements also took place during this period.  Much of this was due to the efforts of the Surveyor and Engineer, Richard Griffiths.  Previously to his work in the 1820 to 1840 period the road system had been very primitive and the roads were badly surfaced .  Much of Griffith’s work was done to provide military roads to allow the movements of troops following the unrest in the 1780-1820 times of the Whiteboys and the Rockites, but the improved movement of goods also allowed the use of wheeled vehicles where previously pack animals had to be used.


One road in particular is today held up as an example of a road built specially

For the butter trade. This is the road which originally ran from Tralee through Rathmore and Millstreet and onto Cork. This route is today known as the Butter Road. There were in fact many Butter Roads and nearly every corner of the two counties plus parts of Limerick and Tipperary were connected up to Cork City at that time.

The Merchant structure in Cork City was also enlarged many times. The exporters tended to be theold merchant class, mainly Protestant and closely connected to each other. They included such names as Pike, Shaw, Carr, Lane, Hardy and Honan. The new butter buyers came from a wider field, including many Catholics. We see names such as Fagan, Minhear, Cagney and Finn amongst them as well as O’Leary.

These men formed themselves eventually into a Committee of Merchants to preserve the high standards they were trying to create and of course as a self protection organization. The butter trade itself was about to embark on nearly a hundred years of increasing prosperity from about 1750 to 1850, and this structure served it well.  There were also times of crisis such as the period following the ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, when the enormous trade in provisioning Naval Ships collapsed as the ships were paid off following the Armistice.


Finally the trade moved on to better things when butter making on the farm was abandoned in favour of collecting the milk and taking it to the local Creamery for the superior methods now available for mechanical separation by centrifuge.  These in turn were replaced by the Co-Operative Movement, giant Creameries and the collection from the farm by tanker.  All of which are far more familiar to us today

                                                      Peter O’Leary