Bog-Butter

Ouch!  All those dang mosquitoes want a piece of me!  Life before the creation of Off, bug-zappers, and citronella candles must have been miserable. Even the poor cat can’t enjoy the great outdoors until he’s swathed in Off.  Because of his long hair, the only place the mosquitoes can reach his skin is on his nose.  All the recent bites make it look like he tussled with a weed-whacker and lost. And, sadly, when I went to the store, only tropical scent Off was available.  Oh, how he hates that!  I just can’t make him understand that the mosquitoes find it obnoxious, too.  I keep reminding myself that the buggy aspect of a Michigan summer could be a lot worse.  Before the land was farmed, a large swath of southern Lower Michigan had to be drained.  It was excellent mosquito-breeding ground (still is)!

While Michigan had its fens, Ireland had its bogs.  In more recent centuries, bogs provided fuel in the way of peat, but did you know that they also acted as Ireland’s first refrigerators?  According to Mitchell and Ryan, “a common find in bogs is so-called bog-butter, buried in the anaerobic conditions to preserve it for winter.  Sometimes contained in a wooden vessel, often simply wrapped in bark; analysis has shown that it is indeed butter and not cheese as is sometimes commonly thought.  The practice continued into early modern times.” (p. 249)

Another place dairy products may have been stored – for shorter intervals – are in souterrains.  These are underground passageways, many consisting of a complex of chambers.  They are typically constructed of drystone masonry, roofed over with large stone slabs.  Their primary function seems to have been for defense or refuge during raids.  Some examples have passages of varying levels that would require an intruder to bend, stoop, or crawl.  In arguing for the defensive function of souterrains, Hughes and Hamlin posit, “It is always difficult to assess people’s tolerance in the past, but who would choose to squeeze through a gap only 1 foot 6 inches by 2 feet 6 inches on the way to fetch butter?” (p.79)  Hey, that’s what kids are for!  Most souterrains had single entrances but some, like the one at Dunbeg in County Kerry, had multiple ones that would have made nice sallyports.

Mitchell and Ryan conclude, “It is likely that souterrains were also used for storage as their cool, usually dry interiors would have been suitable for keeping dairy products.  However, surprisingly little evidence of this has been found.  Barrels may have been stored at Balrenny souterrain in Co. Meath.” (p. 265)

The ancient Gaels may not have had the luxury of ice-boxes or ice-houses, but at least they didn’t have to contend with mosquitoes!  They did have midges though, and that’s a whole different can of worms…(er, bugs)!

SOURCES

Mitchell, F. & Ryan, M. (1997).  Reading the Irish Landscape.  Dublin:  TownHouse.Hughes, K. & Hamlin, A. (1997).  The Modern Traveller to the Early Irish Church.  Dublin:  Four Courts Press.

LINKS

For some nice photos of souterrains, scroll down to the bottom of this page:

www.irishmegaliths.org.uk/seanchlocha7.htm

For more info, stop by:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Souterrain

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2 Responses to Bog-Butter

  1. Leslie says:

    Would the ancient Gaels have had any natural midge repellant?

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