A Letter from Ireland:

The Delightful Butter Roads of Old Ireland


Have you ever heard of The Butter Roads of old Ireland? Maybe you’ve travelled along one or two? It’s likely that a few of your ancestors would have used these important (and scenic!) road networks in Ireland of the early 1800s. See what you think!


Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland. How are things in your part of the world today? We’re doing just fine here in County Cork – a nice sunny morning with the promise of rain after a prolonged dry spell (three days!).

I’m sipping on a cup of Lyon’s tea as I write – and I do hope you’ll join me now with a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter. This morning I’ve not only that fine cup of tea before me – but a nice piece of crunchy toast with some melting Irish butter on top. Absolute heaven, what do you think?

Isn’t it amazing how butter has been “rehabilitated” in our medical literature. Apparently, it contains good fats that can help ward off all manner of neurological diseases – what good news! You see, Ireland has always had a reputation for its dairy products and I think we are all fond here of that dark, yellow butter that tastes of herbs and green fields.

The Start of the Butter Roads Of Old Ireland.

The Cork Butter Exchange was located in the Shambles area (a butchering market) of Cork City – offering a downhill run to the ships in the port located below. The port of Cork is situated on one of the largest natural harbours of the world and at one time was a major centre of navy and commercial activity for the British Empire. Britain had a lot of soldiers, sailors and citizens to feed across her sprawling empire – and so, the Port offered a practical gateway to this market for the food producers and merchants of southern Ireland.

In County Clare

In the 1700s, salted butter was an excellent way of capturing and preserving the natural nutrients that came through the cow’s milk. However, much of this butter was produced far to the west of Cork Port – with poor, long and dangerous tracks offering the only means of connection to market.

The fields of west and north Cork, east Kerry and Limerick offered ideal pasture for the production of high quality butter – and demand was increasing by the day. The first “Butter Road” was developed by one John Murphy of Castleisland in County Kerry. It shortened the distance between Cork and Listowel (in County Kerry) from 102 to 66 miles – connecting many of the towns in between. Suddenly, it became possible for a farmer to load up his horse with two casks of butter for the market and make it there and back in two or three days.

With the opening of these roads, Cork Butter Exchange was established and became the largest in the world – up to 3,000 wooden casks of butter would be delivered every morning, inspected, graded and shipped off to the four corners of the world. Ships from Holland, Spain, Portugal and further afield were waiting to transport the goods. Cork butter made its way as far as America, Brazil, Australia and Canada. The farmer would collect his money and head home with a light load – hoping that his money, and himself, would remain safe from highwaymen along the road.

The End of the Butter Roads of Old Ireland.

However, by the 1880s – local cooperatives were established across Ireland where people could buy their fresh butter minus the heavy salting. A real revelation for some! This co-op system provided a safer and more predictable means of income for local farmers and the butter roads were not longer used for long distance transport. Some were upgraded to surface roads, other only used locally while others were overgrown and gradually reabsorbed back into the countryside.

In North County Kerry

The Cork Butter Exchange eventually closed its doors in 1924. You can still experience this fascinating time in Irish history if you ever have a chance to visit the Butter Museum – located just beside the Exchange on the northside of Cork city. However, one of my own favourite things to do it to find a portion of that old Butter Road and spend an hour or two ambling along its grassy route- sharing the sights that our ancestors must have enjoyed as they made their way on this pilgrimage along the “World’s Greenest Dairyland”.

Maybe one of your own Irish ancestors was a dairy farmer who walked these roads at one time? If so, do let us know in the comments below.

That’s it for this week. We do look forward to you joining us again next week.

Slán for now, Mike & Carina.

  • colleen m wheeler says:

    Mike: Even found an old “Butter” Gate in Drogheda in County Louth which may have been where tolls for butter were collected ! Sadly thou, it has/is being torn down as it appears to be dangerous.

  • Pádraic MacCoitir says:

    I found a butter lane in Iceland -right next to cheese yoghurt etc…

  • After eating Kerry Gold I will never eat any other butter again. Thanks for a very interesting bit of history Mike. On a trip to Ireland in 1977 I took a tour of Muckross House. I was already home when a relative told me my Gr Grandmothers butter churn was in the kitchen.

  • Gail says:

    I would like very much to amble down one of those roads with you.
    Thinking about the ships from everywhere, my Sweeney family in Dungarvan had a pub near the quay from around 1800 to 1850. I inherited a can full of coins collected in that pub. It seems the family tossed interesting coins from all over the world in that can.
    In addition to Great Britain and Canada, there are coins from Colonial America, Prussia, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Scandinavian countries, Western Europe, Hong Kong, etc.
    It’s clear that these ports were lively, active places. All kinds of languages were spoken. In the case of my family, pub offerings were a universal language!

  • Sandra says:

    Our Inishowen Doherty nickname is ‘Butters’ and nobody is sure of the origin. There is the theory, of course, that one of the great grandmas made and sold butter. She is called Doherty Butters in one of the early records (possibly Tithe books).

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