Donegal Butter

By Don Cassidy

Anyone who has ever had fresh homemade butter will never forget the taste of it.

At the 19th hole of Donegal Golf Club, my cousins John and Hugh Cassidy introduced me to another Leghowney cousin, Eamon Hone, who is the same age as we are, but looked more distinguished in his white hair. Eamon recalled the many Thursday nights he spent at Uncle Anthony and Aunt Mary’s while he was growing up and the great bread and jam and tea that Mary used to give them. And then the conversation turned to Aunt Mary’s butter, specifically the salt content. Hugh is fussy about the salt content of his butter.

It had been over 50 years since I had tasted Aunt Mary’s homemade butter on her homemade bread and washed it down with a cup of tea. As they talked, my mouth watered and the image of Mary churning came to mind. Homemade butter made with milk fresh from the cow has an unforgettably wonderful taste. There is nothing like it.

One morning during our 1952 visit, I distinctly remember watching Aunt Mary churning the butter. I was sitting on the floor by myself. It seems like no one else was around. I remember her putting pails of milk into the churn and I remember her going back and forth with a tea kettle and pouring water into the churn now and then. Salt was another ingredient of butter, but I don’t remember this detail.

It seemed to be pretty hard work as she pushed the handle up and down. After a while, she had to stop and gave a big sigh and wiped her brow. Then she immediately got back to the pushing and pulling, harder than ever. This happened a few times. Eventually, a look of frustration appeared — she almost seemed to be talking to the churn and saying, “Aren’t you done, yet?” When she was finished, she seemed beat. But the butter was terrific. With just the right amount of salt.

I don’t know where you would go today to get butter as good as that. If you wanted to make it yourself, you would have to have a cow and a churn.

Rita Gillespie of Cullinboy wrote an essay on butter-making in 1938 for the Irish Folklore Project:

“We have a churn at home. I never heard any other name on it. It is called a plunge churn. It is about three feet in height. At the bottom it is about two feet wide. At the top it is about 21 inches. Our churn was made about 10 years ago. The other things connected with the churn are the dash, the lid and the runner.

In the winter, we churn twice per week and in the summer, we churn three times per week. My mother and my sister churn. If a stranger comes in during the time of the churning, he helps to churn. If he did not, he would take the butter in some mysterious way away with him. It takes about an hour to churn. Before the butter comes to the top of milk, the milk becomes thin. Then cold water is poured into the milk in order to harden the butter.”