An empty building churns up memories of butter market era

Cork city was famous for the export of butter to all parts of the world — a trade that was at its zenith in the 1800’s. Bartlemy, like so many other outlying villages, played a not insignificant part in that trade, writes John Arnold.
An empty building churns up memories of butter market era

A demonstration of a butter-making machine at the Cork Summer Show on June 26, 1930

AT the Cross of Bartlemy there’s a property for sale at present — I think a couple of different auctioneers have it ‘on their books’.

It’s a small two-roomed building with a galvanised roof and it’s lying idle with several years now. It doesn’t look much but you know the saying ‘if these walls could talk’? Well, what a story this little edifice could tell.

There was a time when Bartlemy village had five shops and two public houses — all gone now.

In January, 1991, the Postmaster in our village, William Woods, died unexpectedly and as part of An Post’s ‘Viability Plan’ the Post Office was closed down for good. The Woods family had been in business at Bartlemy Cross since the late 1800s. Generations of the family had built a ‘business empire’ at this small rural crossroads.

In the 1960s, I can recall a fine shop, petrol pump, hardware store, Post Office and lorries on the road. Ah yes, how times have changed in a few short decades — they call all the changes ‘progress’ and who am I to argue with this prognosis?

Every time I pass through the Cross I recall old parishioners recalling for me the times gone by, days when the shops, pubs, band room/library and Horse Fair were all part and parcel of village life.

The building now for sale served as the Post Office from 1974 until its sad demise in 1991. William Woods had sold the shop in 1974 to publican Alice Dooley and retained what was called the ‘Butter House’ as the Post Office.

Cork city was famous for the export of butter to all parts of the world — a trade that was at its zenith in the 1800’s. Bartlemy, like so many other outlying villages, played a not insignificant part in that trade.

All through the second half of the 19th century and right up until the 1930s, farmers ‘churned’ their own butter on individual farms. This was then sold to local merchants like the Woods family and they in turn transported the produce in wooden firkins to the famous Butter Market on the Northside of Cork city from whence it was shipped.

That link between city and country goes back a long time — I often think the economy of Cork was so intertwined with its rural hinterland.

It was in this little building at the corner in Bartlemy that the local farmers brought their home-made butter. The butter market in Bartlemy was held every Thursday ‘during the season’ — trade was so brisk in the 1920’s that a second market was held on a Wednesday.

Paddy Murphy, of Killamurren, who died in his 98th year last January, recalled the glory days for me. “I remember as a young fella taking 20 or 30 lbs of salted butter up to Woods’ in a big dish where ’twas weighed and packed for the Butter Market.” He said no money was exchanged as the proceeds from the sales would go to offset the cost of groceries and hardware bought, details of all the transactions were ‘put down in the book’.

When a Farm Labourers strike took place in the Bartlemy district in the 1920s, it left a very bitter aftermath, which still persists almost a century later. The dispute arose over whether farm labourers in the area should get a ‘bonus’ for working half day on Saturdays and Sundays to help save the harvest during a bad year weather-wise.

Son Connors of Kilworth (his mother was a Bartlemy Woods) told me the Butter House in Bartlemy village was boycotted and picketed and he recalled Red Flags being placed at boreens of farmers’ places to ‘discourage’ them from taking butter to the Market. A song, The Bartlemy Farmers, was written at the time which was less than complimentary about the employers — the farmers. I have a good few verses of it but I wouldn’t publish it! A few lines, which contain no names, run as follows;

They make ’em work early and they make ’em work late

But the Transport in Bartlemy will make ’em work straight

The reference to ‘the Transport’ is to the local branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.

When peace was restored and a sort of harmony came to pass, the Butter House underwent a change of use. As the Cooperative Movement grew and creameries sprung up everywhere, the days of the home churning were numbered, as were the weekly Bartlemy butter markets.

The Butter House became a hardware store where cement, farm implements, buckets, screws, coal and literally everything from a nail to an anchor could be purchased.

Paddy Murphy told me that way back the years, a kind of a contest was regularly held at the Cross of Bartlemy to determine who was the ‘greatest liar in Bartlemy’! There was no prize for the winner but to get into the top five was fairly prestigious and contestants vied regularly for the champion spot. He told me the names of those who regularly appeared in the ‘honours list’ but, like the words of the song, some things are best held in the folk memory.

All during our secondary school days, the Post Office in Bartlemy was our ‘bank’, from childhood we all had Post Office Books where birthday, blackberry and ‘wran’ money was deposited. Whenever we wanted a pound or two we went to William Woods and withdrew the cash.

After Mass on a Sunday, the shop at the Cross would be crowded. As I remember it, bread, butter, milk, tea, ham and the newspapers seemed to be the main items purchased. Here I learned my first lesson in politics as it was pointed out to me that those who bought the Sunday Independent were Blueshirts and the purchasers of the Sunday Press were ‘the other crowd’!

After the forced closure of the Post Office in 1991, the village shop went as well. It was in the now demolished Band-room that our local GAA Club was formed in 1928.

When An t Athair Peadar O Laoighaire came here in the 1870s, he promoted bands in both Bartlemy and Rathcormac. He started the Bartlemy Fife and Drum Band, which was tutored by a man named Matthews who was attached to the British Military Barrack in Fermoy. The Band was here until the 1920s when, reportedly, the Black and Tans seized all the instruments and uniforms.

I was told that one day Pat Lee was doing repairs to the thatch on the roof of his house when the Tans came along. They claimed he was hiding weapons in the roof. At gunpoint, they forced him to strip most of the thatch from the rafters. Naturally, no guns were found. The Butter House still stands but for how long more? Ah yes, the light of other days.

God bless Clykeel, god bless Gortroe,

Fort Richard fair, Monanig too.

From strife and strain may all be free

While grasses grow in Bartlemy.

Long may be heard that pleasant brogue

Round Ballinwillin and Knoppogue;

Long live each oak, each ash, each tree

In Ballyda and Bartlemy.

May songbird strain ring sweet and pure

From Cronovan to Ballinure;

May finch and fowl find haven free

Round Desert slopes and Bartlemy.

And so I greet you, big and small

Old-timers, sons and daughters all,

Here’s length of days to you and me

Here’s health to all — in Bartlemy.

From The Bartlemy Rosary by Billy Barry.

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