• The superstitions of churning butter

    Churning milk to butter is an ancient tradition, and it should come as no surprise that it even recently it was surrounded by customs and superstitions that must be equally ancient. Indeed, the old style dash churn, both in terms of the process and the equipment, continued in use in parts of Ireland well into the 20th century and had basically remained unchanged for thousands of years. In Ireland many interesting customs surrounding churning have been recorded. The following is based on the evidence from Wicklow and is quite representative of the customs documented elsewhere in the country.

    For a start, churning was traditionally seen as the work of the women on the farm. One of the worst things a visitor could do when the woman of the house was churning was not to offer to take a turn with the dash. In the Rathdrum area is was recorded that;

    “When there is a churning and a visitor comes in, the visitor is supposed to take a hand at the churn, and say: ‘God bless the work!’. If this is not done, no matter how long you keep churning, you will have no butter” (Ó Cléirigh 1928, 251).

    In 1938 it was recorded that in the Newtownmountkennedy area visitors would help with the churning “because it is an old superstition that if they did not do so, they would take the butter with them” (NFC 927:166). Similar traditions were also documented in the Rathcoyle area (NFC 920/155-63), the Coolroe area (NFC 922/8), the Ballyrahan and Tomnafinoge areas (NFC 922/161-3) as well as the Avoca area (NFC 925/122). In the Aughrim area it was tradition that if a person came in while churning was taking place, the woman of the house would say “Lay your weight on the dash” (NFC 921/174), another way of saying take your turn.

    If the milk didn’t turn to butter it was considered superstitious, and it was believed that a spell had been cast on them to prevent them from milking. According to one source;

    If the butter would not come, the butter-makers put quicken twigs round the churn and sometimes struck the cows in the cowhouse with a quicken gad … or they put a pinch of salt in the churn, or they would put plough irons round the churn, touching it” (Hanbidge & Hanbidge 2005, 91-2).

    It was widely believed that if the cows stopped milking or if the milk refused to turn to butter that someone had 'taken the profit'' from the butter, in otherwards that someone had deliberately cast a spell that had spoiled the milk. The idea of putting plough irons round the churn as a means of countering a perceived spell and returning the 'profit' was documented by Laurence Whelan of Knockanooker in 1936;

    People in Aghavannagh, when the cows stopped milking, put irons on the fire, and as the irons got hot, so too the person who was taking the profit. Woman came is and asked him to take the irons off the fire. The next morning the cows gave milk” (NFC 920/221).

    About this time Máirín Deegan of Millard near Coolafancy claimed:

    To restore the profit the coulter of a plough was placed under the churn and the person who had taken the profit was sure to come in. The people of the house would make that person churn for a while” (NFC 922/7).

    According to Mrs Tyrrell, Rathshanmore, a family at nearby Moyne were advised by a wise woman from Arklow that whenever they churned and got no butter they were:

    to put the coulter of the plough under the churn and they would not be churning long when whoever took the profit would come to the door, but to not let them in”.

    The family took this advice, and apparently it worked (NFC 920/261).

    According to Bridget Murphy of Ballykelly near Shillelagh:

    Long ago a person who went into a house to borrow something at churning time would not get it, for the people would say they would take the profit also” (NFC 922/9).

    Today when we talk of objects as being made of iron we tend to think of these as being purely functional objects at the bottom of the metallurgical ladder - even those pioneering objects from the Iron Age that saw the first use of iron some 2500 years ago in Ireland. Nothing could be further from the truth. We know from the customs such as those outlined above that iron was seen as having special properties that could combat evil intentions.

    Hanbidge, W. & Hanbidge M.A., 2005, Memories of West Wicklow 1813-1939 (2nd edition). Dublin.

    NFC, National Folklore Collection.

    Ó Cléirigh, T., 1928, Gleanings in Wicklow. Béaloideas 1(3), 245-252.

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