Cobblers! Step back in time to era when shoemakers thrived

Nowadays, getting shoes repaired isn’t the most popular activity — so many clothing and footwear items are simply disposables — not like in Seadna’s time when the cobbler made the shoes and then, as the fella says, ‘kept them going’ for years, writes John Arnold in his weekly column
Cobblers! Step back in time to era when shoemakers thrived
Inspecting the finished product at Dwyer's Hanover Shoe Factory, off Washington Street, Cork in January 1953 Ref. 840E Old black and white factories footwear workers

BHÍ fear ann fadó agus is é ainm a bhí air ná Séadna. Gréasaí ab ea é.”

These are the opening lines of Seadna, written by An t-Athair Peadar O Laoighaire in 1915.

I read the book in National School, I suppose, but had little enough interest in it initially.

The first lines translate as ‘There was a man there long ago and the name that he had was Seadna. He was a shoemaker’.

Years later, I got interested in the life and works of the Sagart Aroon from Clondrohid — next year marks the centenary of his death.

In January, 1975, I was in the house of brothers Johnny and Jerry Roche of Ballyda, Bartlemy. Johnny played some fine tunes on the accordion. Later I was recalling times past around the Roche fireside that evening.

Jerry was the eldest of the two, he was born in the 1880s. He recalled his youth, Bartlemy Fair, stories of Famine times, hurling and when their mother had opened a shop in the family home.

He also mentioned the fact that there was a band in Bartlemy. It was a fife and drum band though some local wits called it a ‘stick and bucket’ band! Later I found out that An t-Athair Peadar had organised that band along with a similar one in Rathcormac when stationed in the parish as a curate for six years from 1872.

After that I re-read Seadna — in both Irish and English. Some say the story of the cobbler or shoemaker selling his soul to the devil is similar to the German tale of Faust. One way or another the book intrigued me as I could see where the writer got much of his material — here in the parish.

By the time I grew to teenage years there was no shoemaker left operating in our area — Willie Shinnick had died when I was only four but I grew up with stories about him and Patsy Fahy near Firmount and Bill Egan of Rathcormac.

Getting back to Seadna and its writer’s description of the shoemaker’s visit to a local Fair to buy shoe-leather, well, when I first read it as Gaeilge I knew he had to be talking of the famous Bartlemy Fair. The layout of the Fair Fields with the galloping field below where a race was always held on Fair Days was exactly as described to me by old men who had been at the Fair in its hey-day.

Sure, in writing descriptive paragraphs the author was bound to draw on things he had seen himself.

When An t-Athair Peadar was here in the 1870s the fair was one of the biggest in Munster and indeed all Ireland — ‘Aonach mór na Mumhain’ (the big Fair of Munster) was how he described it.

Nowadays, getting shoes repaired isn’t the most popular activity — so many clothing and footwear items are simply disposables — not like in Seadna’s time when the cobbler made the shoes and then, as the fella says, ‘kept them going’ for years.

Mam was a young widow with five small children so thrift was of the utmost importance in our household. Age-old skills like darning stockings and making sheets from flour bags were seen as normal - indeed necessary - tasks to be undertaken.

When it came to shoe repairs Paddy Maunsell in Fermoy was the man. He was just around the corner from Dave Stack, the chemist who provided medicine for both man and beast. Paddy is dead a few years now and had retired for a while before he passed away.

A fine aisy-going, unexcitable man, Paddy was a master of his trade. He had maybe one electric-powered machine to help with the work but mainly ‘twas by hand he did the repairs. Never in a rush — you wouldn’t want to go in this morning to get shoes fixed for a wedding this evening!

When I was going to St Colman’s, I often dropped in and collected a pair of shoes that wanted soling or heeling, or even in some cases, healing, and Paddy was always so courteous. I often watched him at work with the words of Tommy Makem’s ‘Cobbler’s Song’ singing in my head;

With me ing-twing of an ing-thing of an i-doe

With me ing-twing of an ing-thing of an i-day

With me roo-boo-boo roo-boo-boo randy

And me lab stone keeps beating away

Paddy had the same actions as Tommy Makem as he waxed and cut hemp and punched holes in the leather; ‘measure twice and cut once’ was his motto before cutting a piece off a roll of supple, sweet-smelling leather.

When you left a shoe or a boot or a pair of ‘em in for repairs with Paddy, he’d give you a ticket printed with his name on it. Another ticket was left with the shoe and he’d write the same number on that.

I suppose ‘twas about 25 years ago, here at home we were getting ready for the Autumn Stations when we’d be having Mass in the house — about every four years ‘twould be our turn. Anyway, we always did a fairly major clean up, inside and outside. Walls would be whitewashed and sheds with bad doors fixed up and so on and so forth.

The kitchen cupboards were getting a once over and, lo and behold, Mary found an old ‘shoe ticket’ from Paddy Maunsell. We looked at it and between the combined memories of our two heads we recalled that once upon a time in the mid-1980s I had a pair of brown shoes and was it one day, and I at the mart in Fermoy (sold a calf the same day for £10), that I had dropped the shoes in to Paddy for new heels?

Well, I forgot completely as the days, weeks, months and years passed! We surmised that he’d never still have the shoes but I was going to Fermoy the next day in any case.

In I went to Paddy, fairly embarrassed now, with my ancient ticket. He never batted an eyelid, went into the back of the shop, to where all the shoes and boots were kept, with the ticket in his hand.

After a bit of shoving and shunting he stuck his head out saying: “I found them — they’re not done yet, but I’ll have ‘em ready next week”! and he had.

What brought back thoughts of shoes and bad shoes and broken shoes was a visit I paid on Monday night last. I called to see a relation of mine — her mother and my grandmother would be first cousins so I’d be her second cousin once removed.

She’s an airy sort. We met in a certain town about ten years ago. That same morning I was in a bit of a fuster and hadn’t paid much attention to my attire — top nor bottom. The pair of shoes I’d on had seen better days — the soles were departing from the uppers.

She took one look at me and then in her loudest possible voice she declared: “John, there’s a charity shop down below there and they’d cater grand for the likes of you.”

Half the town heard her and looked at me as I shuffled away. My cousin was laughing after me on the street that day and she was still laughing last Monday night!

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