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A rare breed

In 2000, brothers, Seán and Kieran Murphy spotted a gap in the Irish ice-cream market for a premium, made-from-scratch product, comprised of the finest Irish ingredients. Since then, they have filled that gap with many cups and cones of the Dingle delight that is, Murphy’s Ice Cream. Bernie Commins has the scoop on what makes this rare breed of ice cream so special

When a key ingredient of your ice-cream is Irish cow milk, you are on to a winner. When that milk comes from a Kerry cow and your ice-cream is made in Dingle, well, that is next level. Dairy farmer, Colm Murphy has been supplying the milk that goes into Murphy’s Ice Cream since the early 2000s. He has a small herd of Kerry cows – a native Irish breed believed to be one of the oldest milking breeds in Europe – alongside his larger dairy herd.
Concerned about the potential impact of foot-and-mouth disease on the breed, when it hit Ireland back in 2001, Colm decided to play his part in helping to ensure the Kerry cow’s survival. “I thought to myself it would be a travesty if the Kerry breed would be wiped out. Living here in the Dingle Peninsula, from a disease point of view, you are very lucky, just 30 miles out from the Atlantic, and most of the movement of animals is out of the Peninsula rather than into it. So, I just set about getting a few Kerry calves from Raymonde Hilliard [secretary of the Kerry Cattle Society] who has really kept the flag flying for the breed,” he says.
Sometime later, Colm met Kieran Murphy – no relation – at a meeting where Kieran was guest speaker. They got chatting and Colm mentioned that he had some Kerry cows. “Kieran wondered what type of ice cream the Kerry milk would produce. He asked if I would give some of the milk, and I said I would. So, then he landed out here with the ice cream. I’m no Neven Maguire, but I thought there was, maybe, a little extra smoothness in the ice cream. But Kieran has a good palette, and he was impressed, and we just motored on from there,” Colm says. 

Once a dominant breed

Once upon a time, the Kerry cow was a popular milking breed in Ireland, understood to be dominant here up to the end of the eighteenth century. But being a smaller animal, the Kerry could not compete with the milk-producing prowess of an evolving and better-bred Irish dairy herd.
“The mature Friesian cow would be about 600-650kg, whereas a mature Kerry would struggle to reach 450kg,” Colm explains. The size, unsurprisingly, impacts milk production. According to the Kerry Cattle Society, the average milk yield of a Kerry cow is between 3,000-3,700kg at 4 per cent butterfat, compared to around 5,600-6,180kg at a little more-than 4 per cent butterfat produced by the average dairy cow, today.

In 2022, just 224 Kerry calves were registered with the Kerry Cattle Society.

Of the cow’s traits, Colm says: “They are black, and in full armour with their horns, they remind me a little of the fighting bulls in Spain,” he laughs. And, characteristics-wise, he says: “The Kerry is flighty, if you’re an excitable person, you have no business with them,” says Colm. “The Jersey cow, for example, is a curious animal, they will come sniffing around you, but the Kerry cow is more suspicious, more perceptive. They are well able to fight their corner, and stand their ground.”

According to the Kerry Cattle Society, Kerry cows ‘are extremely hardy and will out winter quite happily, growing a good coat of hair which keeps the cold out’ and their ‘agility enables them to travel safely over rough ground, doing little damage to the pastures’. “The cows rarely have trouble calving, as there is more room in the pelvis than would appear from the size of the cow. The calves are easily reared and the bullocks will fatten, though they may take four to six months longer than other breeds.”

Colm keeps just enough Kerry cows to supply Murphy’s with the milk required to produce its ice cream – 30,000-40,000L per year. He delivers the fresh, raw milk several times a week – in old-style churns – to the Murphy’s Dingle-based production facility, which is regulated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, where it undergoes pasteurisation.
According to the Kerry Cattle Society, the ‘globules of butterfat in Kerry milk are much smaller than those found in other breeds, making it easier to digest’. This, it says, makes the milk ideal for feeding to babies and for others who find it hard to take fat. It continues: “This emphasises the breed as eminently suitable for fresh milk, cheese and yoghurt production. Several Irish farmhouse cheese makers use Kerry milk."
Ice-cream production may not feature in the above list but the 20-year relationship between Murphy’s Ice Cream and Colm Murphy’s Kerry cows has proven that it is a premium and perfect ingredient.

Unique relationship

And it is a unique relationship, Niamh O’Kennedy, chief brand officer at Murphy’s Ice Cream says: “Colm is a working farmer, so sitting and talking to him and hearing about his struggles keeps us very grounded, as opposed to just getting milk into us in cartons.” This is part of a broader strategic business decision made by Murphy’s Ice Cream, to always remain close to its Dingle roots. “We were listed in Tescos but then we sat down and discussed it, and we ended up saying no to it,” says Niamh. She explained that they worried about compromising the quality of the product, and that they may not be positioned to meet the demands of such a listing. So, the company decided to focus more on locally sourced ingredients, and provenance, and to maintain the make-it-from-scratch approach – all tubs are still manually filled! Artificial colourings, flavourings, or powdered milk have no part to play in this ice cream dream, which starts off as a custard base comprised of Colm’s Kerry cow milk, free-range egg yolks from a nearby farm, and cream from local co-op, Lee Strand. The sugar is the one ingredient that cannot be sourced locally, following the demise of our indigenous sugar-beet industry close to 20 years ago. Niamh explains: “We have to import the sugar, which kills us because we can’t say that all ingredients are Irish. We get an organic sugar in from Italy.” Murphy’s Ice Cream variations and different flavours feature ‘inclusions’ that are locally sourced, Irish-produced, or home made.
“Where possible, we will work with a like-minded producers, or we make it ourselves,” says Niamh. “McCambridges brown bread, for example, we caramelise that ourselves [for the brown-bread ice cream]; sea salt ice cream is our best seller, and we collect the salt water ourselves from Wine Strand, which is west of Dingle, boil it down and that gives us the sea salt; and our latest inclusion is with NutShed, a company from Tipperary. We make our own cookies [for Kieran’s Cookies ice cream], and we make the cookie sandwiches too,” Niamh says.
The Dingle shop has expanded to include several other locations over the years such as Killarney, Dublin, Kildare, Galway, with a pop-up shop in Inch Beach, Co. Clare. And Cork city is the most recent addition to the family with the launch of a new shop on the June Bank Holiday weekend.
Plans are afoot for Murphy’s to move into an expanded production facility, including bakery, in Dingle that will help them take the Murphy’s Ice Cream experience to more people, and to other parts of the world such as the US and China it is hoped.
Diversification is a word that is often used today in a conversation about Irish farmers and the ways that they can add value to their enterprises. Colm Murphy may not be the ice-cream maker but he and his cows are very much part of a value-added venture that has put the Kerry cow, Dingle, and Murphy's Ice Cream on the map. And long may it continue.

Artificial colourings, flavourings, or powdered milk have no part to play in Murphy's Ice Cream.