Characters Of Old Belfast – The Buttermilk Man

Brendan McDade continues his reminiscences of the characters from his childhood.


The Buttermilk Man was called Frank but in our street he was never known as anything but The Buttermilk Man. He was the deliverer of buttermilk from the farm to the people of the city, a job he did with skill and expertise although it seemed to prevent anyone getting to know him as a person.

He arrived in the street on a Tuesday afternoon on a tiny cart drawn by an even tinier horse. Large metal churns filled with buttermilk occupied much of the cart’s flatbed. As always he stopped the horse outside Mrs Anderson’s at the corner of Iris Drive. He filled his quart measuring canister from a brass tap on one of the churns and sauntered fluidly across the road to our house which he entered after a quick rap on the door. “Buttermilk today, Mrs ?“ he asked in a voice that was deep with resonance as any of his empty churns. It was of course a rhetorical question for he left his wares whether the lady of the house was at home or not.

Frank the Buttermilk Man had a square shaped head topped with sandy coloured hair. His face was pocked marked and he wore a permanent smile as a result of an accident some years previously when he was bitten on the face by his horse and almost died. The resulting scar left him with a fixed grin and a story to tell.

As with most of the traders he carried a leather pouch containing his cash. Occasionally he wore a white apron that was spotless for he never spilled a drop of his precious buttermilk. I continue to marvel at his skill when pouring the buttermilk into a pint bottle without it touching the narrow opening.

We drank the buttermilk. It had a thick pungent taste and by all reports was supposed to be good for you. Sometimes my mother would have made soda farls using the buttermilk as a liquid ingredient before cooking them on a hot griddle.

He was a reliable source of the latest news and gossip from about the district and it was surprising how much information could be exchanged during such a short transaction. Many of his customers, including my parents enjoyed the buttermilk man’s wares and conversations because it took them back to their roots and an era that was vanishing rapidly.

Frank the Buttermilk Man gradually faded away. His visits became less frequent. He drifted into the past like all the other redundant services and skills that had endured for a generation and brought happiness and contentment to many. He had made an impression, an impact that was good and has stood testament to a period when good service and customer care were valued as making a difference to everyday life in challenging times. After almost sixty years it is nice to think that some people still remember the deep toned, pock marked, scarred but happy go lucky Buttermilk Man.

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