In the 19th century, dairy farmers with six, eight, twelve or more cows on the Castlecomer Plateau installed animal-powered gear systems, to churn the cream. There were two types of animal-powered churning machines on the Plateau – indoor wooden churning gears known as horse wheels and outdoor metal gears, known as horse engines. They served the dual-purpose of churning the cream and, at the same time, they tempered culm from the local coalmines with yellow clay and water under the animal’s hooves to make culm balls to burn as a domestic fuel. The wooden gears were erected in the early decades of the 19th century but were gradually replaced by cast-iron gears in the second half of the century.
Surveys carried out, on the Plateau and the surrounding lowlands, of the end of the 20th century showed a significantly higher concentration of churning machines on the plateau compared to the surrounding lowlands. The difference in density is attributed to the contrast between the soil resources and climatic regime on the Plateau on the one hand and those of the lowlands on the other. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, butter production was the most profitable enterprise on the Plateau whereas farmers had a wider choice of enterprises (tillage crops and sheep production) in the surrounding lowlands.
Churning gears were installed in almost every county in Ireland. The apparently few churning gears in Munster, the province foremost in the development of the dairy industry in Ireland, is surprising. The late Michael Deering (1917-2008), Hollywood, Co. Wicklow, was responsible for rescuing the only wooden churning machine in Britain and Ireland. The only fully operational metal churning gear is on the Kinsella farm in Curranree, Co. Carlow
During the course of the study, an interesting manually-operated churning device was discovered in the townland of Farnans, Co. Laois.