Churning back the years to mark a century of creamery

On Friday, June 16, a day of celebrations will take place in Castlelyons to mark a century of the local creamery, since its humble beginnings in 1917, writes John Arnold.
Churning back the years to mark a century of creamery

Suppliers waiting for the opening of the new creamery at Castlelyons on Thursday, April 20, 1939.

THE term ‘farmer’s butter’ is seldom used nowadays because huge creameries produce nearly all butter manufactured and consumed.

Even that word creamery is nearly a relic of auld dacency. In West Cork there are still a group of independent creameries in existence, but elsewhere throughout the land amalgamations have taken place over the years.

The resultant consolidation, as ’tis called, has seen the emergence of ‘giants’ like Glanbia, Kerry and Dairygold, to name but a few of the very biggest.

A century ago, the spirit of co-operation as fostered and encouraged by Sir Horace Plunkett had taken off in a big way in Ireland. In the 1880s it was said that the GAA ‘spread like wildfire’ throughout the countryside in the aftermath of its foundation in Thurles in 1884.

Doneraile in North Cork is rightly regarded as the home of the first co-operative shop in Ireland, based on the Plunkett model. This venture, backed by Plunkett, Baron Castletown and Alex Roche, Lord Fermoy’s brother, commenced in 1889 —the same year the first ever co-operative creamery opened in Dromcollogher, Co. Limerick.

The rapidity of the growth of the Co-op movement is gleaned from the fact that by 1914 there were more than 800 co-ops set up all over the country.

Plunkett’s theory was simplicity in itself. Farmers in an area would come together and put up finance in the form of ‘share capital’ to start the venture, which in most cases was mainly the manufacture and sale of milk, cream, cheese and butter. The farmers owned the business and could also purchase, at a good price, inputs, which farmers needed to improve their yields.

For centuries, Cork was regarded as the ‘butter capital’ of Ireland with thousands of tons being exported to all parts of the world. Ireland was part of (if a somewhat reluctant partner) the British Empire and her or his Majesty’s subjects in far-flung places needed butter with their daily bread.

Farmers milked their small herds of cows and ‘churned’ themselves, making top quality butter. In most parishes of Munster, butter-buyers had a weekly or twice-weekly market where the farmers brought their produce. The buyers then took the butter in wooden firkins via the various ‘butter roads’ that led to the Shandon area of Cork city, where one of the biggest butter markets in Europe traded — where the Firkin Crane centre is now.

Here in our little parish, the Woods family bought the butter — the old Butter House. The village Post Office still stands as a reminder of the time when cross roads villages were busy centres of commerce.

The farmer or primary producer had no control over the price paid —one had to take it or leave it and a family could only eat so much butter so there was no point in bringing it home if the price was poor.

Horace Plunkett had a theory that the producer could and should control the method of sale of the butter and this was the bedrock on which the Co-op movement flourished.

In the early 1900s, the Dunlea family from Fermoy set up two creameries, one in Fermoy and the second in Castlelyons, established on a site literally under the shadow of the ancient Barrymore castle, which was burned accidentally in 1771.

A Mr J. O’Connor managed this creamery but it was not a tremendous success due to the fact that some of the actual machinery used to separate the milk was forever giving trouble.

In the historic year of 1916, local farmers discussed the possibility of being part of the ‘Co-operative movement’, which was growing in popularity. My maternal grandfather, John Twomey of Kilcor, was at that time in charge of the Castlelyons Cow Testing Association — cow testing was simply recording the daily yield of individual cows on farms with a view to improving the genetic merit of the dairy herds.

In September, 1916, he wrote to the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society in Dublin requesting information and promotional material on the possibility of starting a farmers’ Cooperative Creamery in Castlelyons. Matters moved quickly and by the following spring more than 40 locals had ‘signed up’ to become shareholders in this new venture.

Negotiations were opened with Mr Dunlea and in January, 1917, he agreed to sell his creamery to the new Co-op grouping for £500 — Castlelyons Co operative Creamery was up and running. Peter Hegarty, a neighbour of my grandfather in Kilcor, was appointed Creamery Secretary in 1917 and served diligently in that position for 54 years.

The early years of the new Creamery were tough with turbulent times in the country — the War of Independence, Civil War and then the disastrous Economic War in the 1930s. For decades, farmers had made their own butter at home so the idea of going to the creamery was novel, but the benefits were soon to be seen.

Milk supplied to the Co-op brought in a monthly income from spring until autumn each year. In the early years, the milk churns were brought to Castlelyons by horse and butt or by donkey and car — depending on how many churns one had. A few years ago, the late and former Minister for Agriculture Joe Walsh said that even if you’d only one churn of milk full, you’d take a second one, empty, as well. ‘Never let it be said that ye’d only one churn!’

The appointment of Limerick man Tom O’Donnell as General Manager of the creamery in 1925 saw the start of major expansion. The volume of milk coming in increased dramatically so in the 1930s a complete new creamery was built on a green field site closer to Bridebridge. This was officially opened on April 20, 1939.

The range of services available expanded greatly. Butter-making, rearing chickens, an AI depot, grocery shop, grain mill and ration- making mill were all features of a growing co-operative society. Branch creameries were built in Ballincurrig, Tallow, Conna, and Ballyduff and a branch in Glenville was bought from Mourneabbey Co-op.

At the zenith of its employment, more than 200 people worked in Castlelyons — most from surrounding parishes. There was a great sense of the creamery being local and being at the centre of farming life for a large hinterland.

The 1970s saw huge changes in Irish agriculture. The churn was replaced by the refrigerated bulk tank. ‘Going to the creamery ‘with the milk became a memory as bulk tank lorries now began to call to every farm.

As milk production increased, different creameries were amalgamating to ensure their future. In 1972, Castlelyons and Dungarvan creameries merged and then in 1997 a further ‘marriage’ with Avonmore led to the eventual formation of Glanbia.

On Friday, June 16, a day of celebrations will take place in Castlelyons to mark a century of achievement since the humble beginnings in 1917 and to reflect on those who had the vision to take that brave step all those years ago.

The role of the local creamery has changed hugely over the last 100 years. Glanbia, the ‘parent’ group of which Castlelyons is a member, is now a multi-national company with shares trading on the Stock Market.

Dairy farming has changed too with the number of milk suppliers dropping rapidly, though the output of milk keeps rising. Despite all these changes, we still have a grá for the local creamery, our creamery, started by our ancestors and still a vital cog in the social and economic life of a vibrant part of north-east Cork. Here’s to the next century.

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