Smooth operator: how Irish butter melted hearts

It’s 50 years since Kerrygold was first exported — the ultimate success story of an industry once driven by the Cork Butter Market, says Robert Hume

Smooth operator: how Irish butter melted hearts

FIFTY years ago, Kerrygold butter went ‘global’. In Oct 1962, it was launched in the UK, in Manchester; three years later it was available in London.

Irish butter had been exported to England for three centuries, and is described as salty by Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861).

Butter has been made for several thousand years. The Bible refers to it as a food for special occasions. Made from the milk of sheep, goats, water buffalo and camels, it was churned in animal skins, and swung from tent poles.

For many early civilisations, butter was a medicine or cosmetic. The ancient Egyptians used it to heal eye problems. In India, tribesmen coated butter on their skin to protect them from the cold. The Romans used it as a face cream and to make their hair shine.

In colder climates it was eaten, and in the Arctic it was gorged.

Butter has been connected with superstition. A pot of butter was a traditional wedding gift in England because it was thought to bring the couple riches and many children. An old wives’ tale claimed butter soothed burns.

In Ireland, butter was precious. Before salt, butter was preserved by burying it. Barrels of butter have been found in peat bogs. Although grey, waxy and hard, it was not mouldy because the peat had sealed it. A barrel of butter, thought to be 1,000 years old, is displayed in the Cork Butter Museum.

Last year, 100 pounds of ancient ‘bog butter,’ possibly buried as early as the Iron Age, was found by two men cutting turf near Tullamore in Co Offaly. The practice of burying butter had died out by the end of the 18th century.

Cork’s Butter Exchange was built in Shandon Street in 1769, and opened at 6am daily. Farmers from Co Kerry and Co Cork would bring their butter, two barrels at a time, on horse-drawn carts along the ‘butter roads’.

By 7am, the merchants were in their offices in Mallow Lane. “They are an easy, oily folk, fair skinned, as though the softness of butter was blended in their faces,” said DL Kelleher in his book The Glamour of Cork (1919).

For a century and a half afterwards, every barrel of butter passing through the doors of the Butter Exchange was examined, weighed and graded on a five-point scale — ‘first’ being the best and ‘bishop’ being the worst.

Before it could be shipped out from the ports of Cork and Waterford, the butter was salted. It needed to survive the journey to England and Europe, and reshipment to the Caribbean, Brazil, India and Australia. By the 1770s, Irish butter exports were twice the level of the 1680s, and by 1835 they had doubled again. Cork’s Butter Exchange was the largest butter market in the world, and Ireland the world’s biggest exporter of butter.

The butter merchants had grown rich and lived in the city’s most prosperous areas, such as Montenotte.

By the end of the 19th century, most Europeans wanted a less salty butter, and demand for Irish butter dwindled. Britain imported its butter from France, Denmark and Holland. Butter was no longer being made on the farm but in creameries. With foreign competition and new production methods, Cork’s Butter Exchange closed in 1924.

The setting up of the Irish Dairy Board in 1961 revived the fortunes of Ireland’s dairy industry. Kerrygold was born in 1962 — though it might have been called Shannon Gold, Tub-o-gold, Golden Farm, Butter-cup, or even Leprechaun. Kerrygold was chosen because IDB’s chief executive, rugby international Anthony O’Reilly, thought the name suggested “the very best from Ireland.”

“I recommended Kerrygold,” he later recalled. “I explained to the board that it was a very strong name; it had a strong K, it was very well recognised and had an obvious Irish background.”

In 1973, Kerrygold butter, in its famous gold foil, was launched in Germany. It became the number one imported butter brand in Spain, in 1995, and in the same year reached South Africa.

Kerrygold TV adverts have become legendary, and emphasise how popular the brand is in Europe:

‘Can you put a bit of butter on the spuds André?’

‘Ah, Kerrygold, you have this in Ireland, too?’

‘Cooking like a Frenchman’ in the advert Who’s taking the horse to France? means using Kerrygold to make Hollandaise.

With its nostalgic backdrop of moors and waterfalls, The Sod shows an Irish farmer about to leave his much-loved home and move to Berlin. But, at least, he will not have to give up Kerrygold. It is the leading butter brand in Germany.

Today, Kerrygold is marketed in 60 countries. Tut tut. We export all our best stuff.

* The Cork Butter Museum in O’Connell Square is open daily from 10am — 5pm.

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