Ireland Has an Entire Museum Dedicated Solely to Butter

There's a thousand-year-old butter keg and a collection of old butter wrappers.

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Oct 29 2015, 7:36pm

All photos by the author

Historically, butter was a distinctly northern European phenomenon: Only in cooler temperatures could you keep butter for a number of days without it going rancid. But it's an especially big deal in Ireland, where butter is the country's most essential food export, and the Cork Butter Museum lends a certain cultural gravitas to everyone's favorite popcorn-topping.

The first thing you see when you walk into the Cork Butter Museum is the massive stack of aging butter logs. Past that, there are ancient butter skimmers, centuries-old firkins (a specialized butter container, which could be buried underground to help preserve the butter for longer) and butter churns that visitors can churn themselves. The two-story building is filled with artifacts of Cork's butter-making past and present. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the world's only museum devoted solely to butter.

After visiting the museum myself, I sat down with its director, Peter Foynes, to chat about the importance of butter in Irish history and culture and the reasons for creating a butter museum in the first place.

VICE: What's the backstory of the museum?
Peter Foynes: The museum was opened in 1997 by a group of local businesspeople. In particular, [they wanted] to mark the old Butter Exchange in the city, that used to be the biggest butter market in the world. But also to commemorate Ireland's dairy history, which is really quite important. So that was the initial idea. The old Butter Exchange became vacant in 1996, so that was the ideal place for it.

Wait, what's a Butter Exchange?
In 1769, there was a group of people in the city called the Committee of Merchants that decided they wanted to take regulation into their own hands. There was butter trading in the city before that, but it was unsatisfactory. So the Merchants introduced a system of quality checking, basically grading the butter themselves. Over time, it also became a system for dealers to go through to get their butter because it would then have the mark of the Butter Exchange of Cork on it and that was a good thing to have.

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Why is Cork, in particular, so tied in with butter?
Historically it was because of the harbor and the trade routes across the Atlantic. As the British Empire expanded into the West Indies and North America, those trade routes became very important. Ireland itself is perfect grass-growing country and therefore a good place to raise animals, so Cork became the harbor where the dairy market met the Atlantic trade. The British Army that fought in the American War of Independence was significantly provisioned from Cork.

So Cork was providing supplies to the enemy?
It's a matter of geography, really. If you're going across the Atlantic from England, you have Cork on your way and that's about it. It's perfect cattle country, so you have beef, butter, and pork right there.

What made Irish butter so special?
Then and now, Irish butter is grass-fed. That's what makes a difference. Basically it's "garbage in, garbage out" with butter, so if cattle have bad feed, the butter quality is lower. Because we have a long growing season here—February to November or thereabouts—the cattle can be grass-fed for a very long time, which leads to a better quality of butter.

So butter is obviously an important part of Irish history. What kinds of things do you have in the museum?
Prior to the 1970s, there were many small, even minuscule, butter makers producing for the local parish or the local community and they all had their own parchment paper wrappers. We have at least 120 of those that we've collected. Those producers are all gone now, all consolidated into about half a dozen larger producers. They would have all completely disappeared from history if not for us.

[The oldest artifact in the museum is] the keg of bog butter that we have upstairs. There's a long tradition in Ireland of burying butter in bogs. The keg we have here is about a thousand years old. The oldest butter in the world is Irish and it's creation is dated to about three and a half thousand years ago.

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Why did ancient Irish people keep butter in the bog? That sounds kind of gross.
Exactly why people did this is not fully understood. It could have just been preservative, it could have been for ritual purposes. Butter was kind of a high-status object, and there was a tradition of burying high-value goods in the ground.

What's your personal favorite part of the museum?
It's not fair to pick out one, but I'm fairly pleased with the butter wrapper collection. That's the kind of stuff that will disappear very quickly. These were fairly commonplace forty years ago but will soon be gone unless someone makes an effort to find them and preserve them.

What do you see for the future of the Museum?
We're looking into further expansion into the old Butter Exchange building, but that's still a matter for discussion.

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