A BACKWARDS GLANCE…
A report on Derrygonnelly Butter written by local historian and author Marion Maxwell, published in “Fermanagh: A Story in 100 Objects”:
Derrygonnelly Butter is one of the #fermanagh100. Marion Maxwell, local author and historian has been commissioned to write the report on this object. Here Marion discusses the significance of the creamery and the link that it has to her own family.
When I was wee, our Sunday afternoon drive took us more often than not to my father’s home place at Monea. Heading down Scandally lane my father would, right on cue, look across to the grassy uplands of Knockmore and intone: “The Knockmore Brand, untouched by hand.” It was, he proudly explained, the slogan used on the packaging of the butter produced in Derrygonnelly Co-operative Creamery. His father, my grandfather James Cathcart, had been a founder member when it opened in 1898.
Jeffreys Rogers, Chairman of Derrygonnelly
Co-Op Agriculture & Dairy Society & George
Cathcart (my father), Member of the Milk
Marketing Board. Copyright George Fawcett
But it wasn’t until half a life time later that I was able fully to unpack the significance of that Knockmore butter legend ‘untouched by hand‘. The springboard for my renewed interest was an article entitled The Rise and Fall of an Indigenous Industry: Milk Processing in County Fermanagh from the seventeenth Century until the Present Day by Dr. George Chambers.
Only when I read his essay was I able to comprehend how the advent of creameries in Fermanagh in the late 1890’s had signalled a mini domestic, social and industrial revolution within arguably Fermanagh’s most important indigenous industry. Traditionally, butter making and all its attendant domestic rituals had been the preserve of the woman of the house, often the purpose of her outing to market and the source of cash for her apron pocket.
Visitors & Employers of
Derrygonnelly Creamery at AGM
circa late 1940s early 1950s.
Copyright Fermanagh County Museum
Once butter-making moved to the creamery, it was the men who reaped the social and financial benefits, they who made the daily, sociable trip to the creamery and theirs the milk cheque to take to the bank. The co-operative model also gave the farmers the chance to run their own affairs and, not least, a share in the profits.
WF Parke in A Fermanagh Childhood recalled the scene at Derrygonnelly creamery:
“Around half past ten in the morning the creamery was in full swing. A queue of carts, spring carts and wheelbarrows stretched right out to the road all waiting their turn to have their milk emptied, tested and weighed. The farmers exchanged the local news and gossip when awaiting their turn. After their cans had been emptied the cart then moved around to the back of the creamery where the farmer received his quota of skim from Old Barney… The skim was brought home and used for the feeding of calves and pigs and baking bread.”
Conversations with George Fawcett, the last Derrygonnelly creamery manager, fleshed out the picture for me. The town’s creamery had operated successfully for some eighty years when it merged with three other creameries in 1978 to form an organisation called West Ulster Farmers.
Our conversations about the history and workings of the creamery and its contribution to community life in the town and surrounding countryside threw up a wealth of facts, anecdotes, some of them hilarious, and, not least, memorabilia . Now generously donated to the museum, they include the medals which were the source of such pride, as well as papers, dairying equipment and- my runaway favourite – a dinky little 1 lb butter box of beautiful design in which the Knockmore butter had been packaged for sale.
Dazzling us with just a touch of science, the box proclaims confidently:
Up amongst the clear air and pure feeding of the mountains graze the healthy cattle, whose centrifugally churned milk produces the renowned KNOCKMORE BUTTER
This brand has since last century been awarded the highest prizes at the most important British and Irish Shows.
We get the message. Same well-fed, healthy cows, same award-winning quality each time. No clatty butter, old pisogues and superstitions now defunct. Seeing to that was the creamery’s specially trained dairy maid – for in the early years it was still seen as the preserve of a woman.
The coming of creameries may have been revolutionary within the industry, but it built on a strong tradition of butter marketing in Fermanagh that goes back at least to the 1600’s. A butter buyer’s letter dated 1679 specifies an order for ‘English butter such as produced in Enniskillen’. This would have been the lightly salted ‘mild’ style suited to the English market as opposed to heavily salted with its longer keeping qualities for export to colonial markets, the West Indies, for example.
The county’s main towns all had butter markets, the best and biggest being in Enniskillen. And there was an auxiliary trade in making the wooden firkins in which butter was packed for export.
And speaking of packaging, back to my butter box and how to date it. The packaging firm no longer exists, nor do its records. However, a clue turned out to lie in the early single digit telephone number: Derygonnelly 3.
A helpful BT archivist went beyond the call of duty for me:
The entry is listed as ‘Derrygonnelly Co-operative Agricultural & Diary Society Ltd., Butter Making’ and appears in the August 1923 phonebook for Northern Ireland.
The January 1940 phonebook shows the listing still as 3. In the September/October 1940 book it’s shown as 203. So at some point between those months the change was implemented. Thus, used during a period spanning the 1920’s and 30’s the box’s faintly art deco design and lettering are also of its time.
Should you have the good fortune to eat in chef Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, you will be served Abernethy butter. Tastefully packaged in a way that says ‘home made’ and with a seal that shows a traditional churn, its boast is that it is country butter from the beautiful hills of Co. Down handmade in churns the traditional way by
Furthermore, here are a couple of extraxts from Marion Maxwell’s research report on the importance and origins of the Derrygonnelly Butter Box:
“…sources such as recorded oral testimonies confirmed oral traditions within my own family circle concerning the business of butter making, so crucial to the household, yet so subject to external conditions in the domestic situation that it became surrounded by superstitions. ….The native woodlands of Derrygonnelly’s hinterland contain rowan trees. Known also as the fairy tree, rowan has been much associated with bringing good fortune to the churning process: a twig of rowan would be tied round the churn or tied to the dash.”
“Local knowledge produced the fact that in the early days of the telephone coming to Derrygonnelly, the post office would have been Derrygonnelly 1, the doctor 2. Having telephone number 3 confirmed the status of the creamery within the town.”
To read Marion Maxwell’s full research report, click here.
Derrygonnelly & District Community Partnership will hold its next monthly meeting on Monday 14th September 2015. Time and venue to be confirmed. All welcome. In the meanwhile we hope you all have a lovely summer.
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