Tuesday 23 July 2019

Recalling a by-gone era of farmers' essential footwear

Crowds at the Tubbercurry Old Fair Day in 1999. It was on these fair days that James recalls his father coming home with new ‘tacked’ boots which have since been replaced by wellingtons nowadays
Crowds at the Tubbercurry Old Fair Day in 1999. It was on these fair days that James recalls his father coming home with new ‘tacked’ boots which have since been replaced by wellingtons nowadays

James McCarrick

Things always seem to have happened on fair day - the days of the monthly cattle fair in Tubbercurry.

My father came home one fair day with a brown paper parcel. It was ceremoniously unwrapped to reveal a pair of child's wellingtons, black and shiny and secured together with a white twine.

After due admiration they were placed to one side, the dinner was served up by Mother and we all tucked in. When we were finished and drew back our chairs we observed, standing at the bottom of the kitchen, the youngest girl standing in the new wellingtons which were still secured by the twine. They were on the wrong feet and came all the way up on her legs-they were bought for her older brother!!

On returning from another fair my Father proudly produced his new 'tacked boots'. They were of sturdy black leather, smelled wonderful and had leather laces called 'whangs'. The soles of the boots was where the real interest lay. They had precise rows of heavy tacks nailed in perfect symmetry, three each side and shorter ones in the middle. The heels were 'shod' with a strong steel tip.

My Father had been measured for these boots and they would now be stored for months having had linseed oil poured into them. When the oil had soaked the boots were ready for wearing. They would last for years and could withstand wet and dirty conditions. They were carefully maintained and regularly cleaned and polished with a substance called 'dubbin' a colourless wax.

Then there were the repairs. On occasional winter nights Dad would position his chair under the kitchen lamp. The cobblers 'last' would be taken from under the stairs together with an old tea tin. The 'last' was made from heavy iron with three protruding shapes-a heel and two sole sizes.

The tin contained a ball of off white thread called hemp, a chunk of brown wax, a dozen shoe protectors (wide headed short nails) and an awl (sharp heavy needle mounted on a wooden handle). Dad would take the wax and knead it in his hands to soften it. Then he would take the hemp and cut two lengths from it about eighteen inches long and wind the two into one.

He would then proceed to pull the thread firmly across the ball of wax until he had a stiff heavy rather sticky thread. This he would rub with soap to make it smooth.

The finished product was called 'a wax end'. This was the incredibly strong and flexible thread that was used to repair shoes and boots.

The footwear would have accumulated over the summer months, a worn out half sole, a ripped shoe or a broken down back, the damage was very varied. With a sharp knife a piece of leather would be cut to the right size and shape.

The awl was used to pierce the leather and shoe twice. The wax end was used for stitching and this was the real skill.

A point shaped on the waxy thread enabled it to be pushed through one hole, the other end pointed and pushed through the second hole.

That end was wound around the other within the shoe and the thread drawn out, unwound and pulled tightly. First stitch and away!

Leather half soles and heels were replaced.

This is what the 'last' was used for. It was held firmly on the knees and the shoe placed onto it as appropriate-correct size for insole or heel shape if necessary.

Special tacks were used to nail on the new sole or heel and protectors added as required.

These had larger flat heads and were used near the front of the sole.

There were also clogs. This footwear was popular in the early twentieth century and going back a century before that.

They had hard wooden soles and leather uppers.

The soles were shaped properly and the uppers salvaged from old boots. These were neatly tacked to the soles which in turn had 'mountings' nailed on the bottom not unlike a horseshoe.

The finished product was heavy, made a fair bit of noise but was reputed to be most durable, very warm and an insole of hay was the finishing touch.

Trouser ends were secured with a piece of jute sacking and firmly tied. The wearer would get a few winters use out of them.

However they became gradually less popular and were replaced by the wellington after the Second World War, the same wellington has now replaced all the footwear I have described.

But in its time it was the preferred option for the farming community.

Sligo Champion