The Dairy Maid



The dairy maid managed the dairy and her duties included milking the cows and making butter and cheese, as well as ice cream in the summer. She also looked after the poultry and collected the eggs. In some houses, she plucked the chickens and prepared them for the oven and also made the bread for the household.

The dairy maid’s day began early, as cows had to be milked regularly, usually at 6.30 am and again at 6pm. Having milked the cows, she then strained the milk and emptied it into a clean pan. The milk pails were heavy when full and were carried with the aid of a shoulder yoke. Every day, the dairy maid had to clean and scald the milk pans, separator, strainer and milk buckets, and scrub the dairy. Cheese was made using a cheese press and tools such as a curd cutter and curd strainer.


Butter was usually made once a week in the winter and twice a week in summer. Butter-making was a skilled job, and churning the butter required a strong set of arms. Houses like Emo Court would have had their own wooden butter stamp, often bearing the family arms, to custom-mark the butter served at the dinning table. Ice-cream could be made with the help of the device shown here.   

O. Sharkey 1999, p.30



Dairy Maids at Emo Court

We know very little about the dairy maids at Emo Court or what they were paid. A dairy maid called ‘Jenny’ is mentioned in a letter from the agent, Mr. Meares, to Lady Portarlington in 1787. The next mention is in the census of 1901, where Mary Hanlon, a 21 year old Catholic girl from Cork, is named as dairy maid. At that time, the house had a dairy, two cow houses and a calf house as well as many other outbuildings.


As dairy maids were at the bottom level of the servant hierarchy, they were generally quite badly paid. Dairy maids at the de Vesci house at Abbeyleix, for example, were paid only ₤5 13s 9d in 1805, compared to the ₤45 a year paid to the cook. ‘The Complete Servant’, published in 1825, recommended that dairy maids should be paid between ₤8-12 a year. Some compensation for these low wages came from the fact that dairy maids worked outside, away from the steamy kitchens and the watchful eye of the housekeeper or cook.