Thursday 14 November 2019

Peacocke's workshop takes a step back in time for fine shoe repairs

We raise a glass to Peacocke's in Kildare where they've been hand-making shoes since 1959

BEST FOOT FORWARD: Ger Peacocke in his workshop on Main Street, Kilcullen, Co Kildare. A photo of Hugh, his late father, hangs above him. Photo: Tony Gavin
BEST FOOT FORWARD: Ger Peacocke in his workshop on Main Street, Kilcullen, Co Kildare. A photo of Hugh, his late father, hangs above him. Photo: Tony Gavin

Joanna Kiernan

Peacocke's Shoemakers and Repair in Kilcullen, Co Kildare is one of the very few traditional workshops around Ireland, which remains untouched by time.

As you walk by the window you can see Ger Peacocke - a master craftsman - busily toiling away in a long apron; often with a hammer in one hand and a shoe in the other. In an age of so much mass production in far off factories, there is a definite thrill to seeing such a craft in action.

Like many of the more traditional trades, the shoemaking and repair business has seen its fair share of ups and downs over the last few decades. In fact, the vast majority of traditional shoemakers have either been usurped by larger businesses or simply drowned out by the modern trend for buying 'disposable footwear'.

However, when a craft such as high quality shoe repair dies out, it pays to be the last man standing. Particularly in an age where both men and women's designer shoes are still very much in demand.

For Peacocke's proprietor, Ger Peacocke, whose late father founded the business in 1959, business these days is largely focused on the niche market of quality shoe repairs and alterations; stretching and fitting new soles to handmade men's shoes, repairing hunting boots, lowering the heels of ladies shoes; from the minuscule to the major adjustments, Ger can do it all.

"It is important when you invest in shoes and spend money that you bring them to the right people to repair," Ger explains. "Any of those quickie guys will make a mess of them. I have had some shoes brought in before after them and they were a disaster. A lot of these newer lads, they can't do anything awkward. I have often seen good men's leather shoes after they would bring them into these places and they have just stuck a big plastic sole over the bottom of them, which is just wrong.

"People have come into me and said: 'I didn't know you were here' or that they didn't know anyone did this anymore," Ger smiles. "But I'm kept busy, I do a lot of hunting boots repairs and men's and ladies' shoes. People will arrive into the shop from all over Ireland or they will post shoes to me.

"I wouldn't get 5pc of my business from directly around here where the shop is, it's mainly people travelling," Ger adds. "For the hunting boots in particular, customers can come from anywhere and everywhere."

All of Ireland's top jockeys also leave their boots in Ger's trusted hands.

"If they want to hold on to them and want it done right they come to me," Ger says.

And his workmanship and eye for detail speaks for itself, customers from all over Ireland and abroad will bring or even send their most prized footwear for Ger to look after. From Jimmy Choos and Christian Louboutins to Hugo Boss and Valentino, Ger has had every type of shoe imaginable pass through his very talented hands.

"The majority of work at the moment is anything from hunting boots and zips, to a lot of men's shoes repairs from leather soles and heels to ladies shoes - stretching them and putting in elastics, anything and everything," Ger explains. "You never know where they'll arrive from."

Ger also finds a lot of women will bring him expensive, designer shoes for a little pre-emptive work.

"A lot of the time they want me to put a little light sole on it, to stop the leather sole wearing out before they wear them even," Ger tells me. "My customers, they just like getting it done right. They know I'd never hand out something that wasn't done right."

Ger's father Hugh opened the shop on Kilcullen's Main Street in 1959, having worked for a number of years with Tutty's Shoemakers in his native town of Naas. Hugh was a champion boxer and moved to Kilcullen to spar with Colm McCoy, Ireland's Olympic boxing hopeful at that time. Hugh bought the shop for £75, bargained down from £85, and soon began building a reputation for himself in both shoe repairs and later in handmade shoes.

At the time, there were three other well-established shoe repair shops in the town, but Peacocke's outlived them all, thanks in part to Hugh's pioneering approach offering his customers a 'one-day service' which was not yet available anywhere else.

Hugh also began to make handmade shoes and Jodhpur boots in the early Sixties, when, as Ger puts it, "everything went plastic".

"He started making shoes because everything in the early Sixties went plastic, so there were no repairs. So he had to make them or he would have been doing nothing," Ger explains.

Hugh wanted to offer his customers something more and bought in the best quality leather to make his footwear.

It wasn't long before Peacocke's reputation for excellence and craftsmanship travelled around Ireland. Hugh handmade shoes were bought by many big names including the late Charles Haughey, the Lords Waterford, Hemphill and Killanin, and Prince Aly Khan and his son Prince Aga Khan.

"Charlie was a very fashionable man," Ger says of the late Taoiseach. "His election agent used to get his shoes made with my father and that's how it started. He asked my father to go to Dublin."

However, at first Hugh declined the request to travel and told Haughey's people that the Taoiseach would have to come to Kilcullen to be measured like everyone else.

"Hugh politely said: 'Well, I won't be going to Dublin to measure him' - but they kept on and on and then they sent this chauffeur-driven car down to collect the two of us and so Charlie could have his feet measured, he wouldn't come here," Ger's mother Sheila tells me. "Once Hugh has his measurements, then he could just call up and order them when he needed."

And Mr Haughey did so on several occasions, with the result that, like the former Taoiseach's custom Charvet Shirts, his handmade shoes by master craftsman Hugh Peacocke became a very recognisable element of his signature style.

"I got a parking fine while I was bringing him up a pair of shoes to the Dail one day," Ger remembers. "Of course nobody knew anything about him really then."

According to Ger, he 'fell into' the family business rather than having any great love for it at first.

"Ger left Newbridge College in 1976 and that's when he was walking down the street and his father called him in and said: 'You can stay here until you get a job' and he is still there," Sheila smiles. "He had no intentions of staying there."

That was how Ger's apprenticeship alongside his father - albeit informal at first - began. Their partnership would continue until Hugh's retirement after 65 years in the business in 2008.

"I just went in and picked it up from him," Ger explains. "The auld lad would have been quicker than me, but I would be neater than him," he adds with a grin. "But we lasted a long time together so something must have been right."

Hugh passed away, four years after retiring, in 2012 - but the craft and the business he created with his son Ger lives on, attracting new customers each day, as well as fascinated onlookers or even those who just walk by to smell the sweet scent of fine leathers, which burst out from the door and on to the street.

"My wife is always on to me to do the place up, but I like it the way it is, I don't want to change it," Ger says of the workshop, which is like stepping back in time.

Ger is also resisting pressure from his children to give Peacocke's an online presence. "I have no website and I don't do Facebook or any of that," the former Kildare footballer and keen golfer says. "I'm happy enough that way, people know where to find me."

While Ireland's most recent recession affected the business, it is not the first time the Peacocke's have weathered the storm in the shop's almost 56 years trading.

"I'll put it to you this way, if my father was here now, he would be out of a job because the demand for shoemaking has really died," Ger explains. "I was always more focused on the repairs side of things; so that's what I do now and that is busy. I have just enough work to keep myself going; I won't starve, but I don't make a fortune either," Ger smiles. "I have a son and daughter but they've no interest in it - so once I'm gone, that's gone."

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