The folklore of shoes: An account from Co. Galway

This blog post details some of the folklore and history surrounding shoes in early 20th century Ireland. It is based on information supplied by Pat Burke of Killamonagh, Co. Galway in 1938.


Barefoot children, Co. Kerry (source)

‘Long ago the people never wore shoes until they were twenty years. The water they washed their feet with they threw it out. The people that used to wear shoes used to leave them off from St Patrick’s Day to the first of October. There was a woman named Peggy Flynn and she did not throw out the water she washed her feet with and the fairies came in that night and they told her they would not do anything if she brought them in a riddle (strainer/colander)  of water. She went for the water and as she was filling the water it was going out through the bottom of the riddle. She did not know what to do. 

There was a man near her and he told her to plaster the riddle with cow dung. So she brought the water to the fairies and when she went in she told them that the hill of Cnoc Máidhe was on fire, and when the fairies heard that they ran out and when they were gone she threw out the feet water and closed the door and they could not come in again.

shoe shine dublin

Shoe Shine, College Green, Dublin (National Library of Ireland)

There used be cobblers and shoemakers who repaired and made boots. Button boots used to be worn by girls – buttons on one side up to the top. There was a stuff called “guta perka” used in boots some forty years ago. Shoemakers were often deformed in their feet – eg club footed as their trade did not require any walking about. Very often they were witty or perhaps sarcastic as suited the occasion. They had a fund of local doings as people often came in and chat[ted] with them.

People used carry their boots to within a short distance of town and put them on; they used take them off in the same place going home to spare the soles. They used put goose grease on the leather if the leather was very hard. People in Connemara, the women folk do not wear boots most of the year. They wear or used to wear stockings without any soles.

Connemara children (National Library of Ireland)

Connemara children (National Library of Ireland)

Elastic boots used to be worn too – elastic on the ends, and they were pulled up on the foot. They were very comfortable. The soles of the boots were heavily coated with nails to protect the soles and prolong the wear‘.

This account forms part of the Schools’ Folklore Collection, a large and important corpus of material, whose compilation occurred between 1937 and 1939.  This far-sighted scheme, run by the Irish Folklore Commission, saw over 100,000 schoolchildren collecting local folklore from their parents, grandparents and older members of the community.


The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0022, Page 0403

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One Response to The folklore of shoes: An account from Co. Galway

  1. Dan Williams April 25, 2015 at 4:26 pm #

    A nice piece of historical writing. Really down to earth and the way it was as related to us by my folks through many years. Especially the hobnail boots part. Thanks for reviving some old family memories.

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