Ireland’s champagne: Milk is in our Irish DNA

In a new four-part series, starting today, KATE RYAN looks at Ireland’s important and enduring relationship with milk
Ireland’s champagne: Milk is in our Irish DNA

PART OF OUR HISTORY: Some of the earliest known writings concerning milk stem from the Brehon Laws. Picture: Stock

WHEN was the last time you thought about milk? Not just whether you’ve got enough in, but really stopped to look at it, taste it, how it got from the field to your kitchen.

How many times a day do you reach for the milk? Use it to drink or cook with?

Milk is a curiosity. A complete whole food, nutritionally dense, locally produced, and a constant companion throughout our eating day. In the countryside, the cow is a ubiquitous landmark, as are the pastures for grazing and the myriad small farms that tend the herd and collect their milk.

No other country in the world has a relationship with milk like Ireland does. Milk is in the Irish DNA.

Kate Ryan, of
Kate Ryan, of

Over the next few weeks, I’ll look at the dairy industry in Cork — tradition, innovation, farmers, scientists and writers. But to understand the dairy industry of today, first we should consider the historical and cultural importance of Irish milk – our champagne, our ‘Grand Cru’, as food writer John McKenna refers to it. And for that, we must journey way back in time...

Some of the earliest known writings concerning milk stem from the Brehon Laws, or Fénechas, a collection of ancient Irish laws or judgements laid down in the 7th and 8th centuries AD. 

Milk and milk products were cited in several of the texts as a form of tithe, land rents, punishments and remediations, as well as dictating what milk and milk products should be appropriately used as for hospitality, depending on the rank and standing of the visitor to the home.

The Brehon Laws underpin the individual and communal importance of milk — its value and esteem suggesting an inherent knowledge of the nutritional importance of milk in its various forms: whey, buttermilk, fresh milk, thick milk, butter, curds and cheese, with the most nutritious of highest value and reserved for the wealthiest.

The 12 th century heralded the Aislinge Meic Conglinne, or The Vision of Mac Conglinne. This is the story of an itinerant monk, Aniér Mac Conglinne, who travels to Munster, famous for its ‘whitemeats’ (bán bidh or dairy products), and a land ruled by a King haunted by a demon of gluttony that lives in his throat.

He arrives hungry, and is provided with some rations by fellow monks, but Mac Conglinne is unimpressed with their offerings and begins singing raucous and slanderous songs of the monks, who throw him in jail and sentence him to crucifixion the next morning.

During the night, Mac Conglinne has a vision of a land made entirely of food. He spies a coracle made of beef fat and lakes of milk, and it is revealed to him how to draw the demon of gluttony out of the Kings throat. The next morning, he convinces his captors to let him visit the king and attempt to heal his gluttony. He succeeds, Mac Conglinne is pardoned by the king and they all live happily ever after!

Milk has been described by food writer John McKenna as our champagne or ‘Grand Cru’.
Milk has been described by food writer John McKenna as our champagne or ‘Grand Cru’.

Throughout the Vision of Mac Conglinne, references to whitemeats is prolific and demonstrates how, 500 years after the creation of the Brehon Laws, milk and dairy products were still held in high esteem and important in the every day diet of the Irish. A T Lucas, in his book, Ireland Before The Potato, writes: “Milk constituted virtually the sole food of the ordinary people during the summer,” that cows were kept for their milk, that milk was considered “food for guests”, and that a cow would only be killed for meat once deemed too old to yield any more milk. Pigs, frequently referenced to as ‘The Gentlemen of the House’, were the primary animal raised for meat.

Without doubt, milk and milk products were one of the most important sources of food in medieval Ireland. 

A famous quote from the Aislinge Meic Conglinne illustrates this perfectly: “…Of very thick milk, or milk not too thick, of milk of long thickness, of milk of medium thickness, of yellow bubbling milk, the swallowing of which needs chewing, of the milk that makes the snorry bleat of a ram as it rushes down the gorge…”

The diet of the Irish, from a time before the Brehon Laws, through medieval times and up to the threshold between the 17th and 18th century consisted of bread and porridge, both made from oats, and a variety of milk products: milk and cheese, also bretha cróilge — curds and butter.

In 1690, John Stevens, travelling through Co Clare, noted of the Irish: “The people generally being the greatest lovers of milk I ever saw which they eat and drink about twenty several sorts of ways and love it best when soured.”

But, less than a century after Stevens’s observations, the Irish diet changed dramatically with the introduction of the potato. Butter and milk consumption dropped off in line with an increase in the cultivation and consumption of potatoes.

The dietary after-effects of An Gorta Mhór, from 1860 on, saw a contraction in potato cultivation — “the old potato and milk diet was seen as an archaic, subsistence food system”.

Between 1850 and 1920 the Irish diet became far more varied for both the urban and rural poor as a result of increased trade in food between Ireland and the world, fuelled, in part, by Ireland’s successful butter exports (remnants of the Old Cork Butter Roads and the Butter Museum in the city are testament to this).

FOR THE LOVE OF MILK: In 1690, John Stevens, travelling through Ireland, noted that the Irish were truely the greatest lovers of milk — enjoying it in lots of different ways. Picture: Stock
FOR THE LOVE OF MILK: In 1690, John Stevens, travelling through Ireland, noted that the Irish were truely the greatest lovers of milk — enjoying it in lots of different ways. Picture: Stock

In 1914, 256,356 cwt of Irish butter left the Port of Cork; however, the consistency and quality of the butter was a concern. Much of the butter produced in Ireland was still made in the home, raising issues about hygiene. The early 20th century was the era of the Travelling Domestic Instructresses — women who were trained by and registered with a newly formed ministry, the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland (DATI).

The Instructresses travelled the country providing education, amongst other things, on hygiene and safer production methods for those making butter at home on a small farm/domestic scale.

At the same time, the Creamery Co-Operative Movement, founded by Sir Horace Plunkett, saw factories built for processing milk into butter on an industrial scale while at the same time sorting out many of the perceived issues of uniformity of flavour, texture and quality as well as ensuring a continuity of supply.

The success of the creamery co-op model remains in Cork to this day: in 2019, County Cork was home to 25% of all the cows in Ireland, and in 2013 Cork alone produced 1.4 billion litres of milk, the majority of which passed through the Co-ops and processors (Carbery, Dairygold, Kerry Foods and Galtee).

Academia has long been a vital component of Cork’s dairy history. In 1928, the foundation stone to the Institute of Dairy Science at UCC was laid by William T. Cosgrave, President of the Irish Free State; Patrick Hogan, Minister for Lands and Agriculture; John Sisk & Son Construction Company, and Henry H Hill — architect and father of Myrtle Hill, better known to us as Myrtle Allen, founder of Ballymaloe House and Ireland’s first food activist.

Myrtle understood how the land influenced the flavour and quality of food. In 1977, in the introduction to her book The Ballymaloe Cookbook, she wrote of this exchange: ”The butter your sister is sending us is very good,” I said to my neighbour one day. “Yes,” he said, “that field always made good butter.”’

Myrtle Allen, founder of Ballymaloe House understood how the land influenced the flavour and quality of food. Picture: Denis Minihane
Myrtle Allen, founder of Ballymaloe House understood how the land influenced the flavour and quality of food. Picture: Denis Minihane

That quote encapsulates the belief in, not just butter, but all our milk products. There is science, knowledge and instinct of course; but also mysticism and folklore in the mix too: St Patrick’s attempted assassination by poisoning in pressed curd for him to eat; Queen Maeve, who was killed by a blow to the head of a missile of hard cheese, or Tanach, and the miracles of St Brigid.

Folklore and superstitions linked to milk, and especially butter, reaches fever pitch around May Day and the ancient Celtic festival of Bealtaine. Fear of old hags and vindictive neighbours stealing the ‘butter profits’ (the rich cream that turns milk into butter), abound. The butter churn was seen as particularly vulnerable, with lumps of charcoal placed underneath it to ward off bad spirits; and the shooting on site of anyone seen walking the fields unbidden on May Day night and stealing the May Dew from the grass with an old rag.

Very little butter is now churned in our own homes. 

As industrialisation has taken over,the success of the creamery co-op model, herd size and yield increasing and production booming, the process of producing our own milk and milk products is an activity long gone from our homes and with it the superstitions that protected it. The 1970s saw a resurgence in some of these traditions, particularly in relation to cheesemaking. It started with Veronica Steele and the creation of Ireland’s first modern-day farmhouse cheese, Milleens, made from the milk of a one-horned cow named Brisket way out on the Beara Peninsula.

It continued with Jeffa Gill of Durrus Cheese, Gianna Ferguson of Gubbeen Cheese, Jane Murphy of Ardsallagh Goats Cheese — just the tip of an iceberg of great Cork cheesemakers.

Although these days cheesemaking is not an exclusively female occupation, there is an undeniable link with the past that flows from these female pioneers of modern farmhouse cheese making to the women who tended the cows, milked them and protected that milk to make butter, bainne clabair (buttermilk), and all those thick, thin and chewable forms of milk considered so valuable in times past.

For milk, and the work associated with milk, was always considered “women’s work” — the work of our ancestral mothers.

In part two: Kate Ryan will be talking to three farmers who each farm a different type of milk, from buffalos, goats and cows.

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