A niche profession in some instances, a vanishing trade in others; we talk to the master craftsmen who serve dwindling demands with pride and passion.
“Curran’s was started up in 1937 by Michael Curran. He knew the finished product that he wanted, but we were lucky to have two other lads in here – Patrick and Joseph, while another man, Dominic, used to operate the machinery. They were fantastic at the job, and they turned Curran’s into one of the most popular shoe repair shops out there in the 40s, 50s and 60s. My father, Hubert Miley, became good friends and worked with Mr. Curran in the 1960s – we were never allowed to call Curran by his first name.
“When I came in here, aged ten, I’d be on cleaning up duty, and became passionate about shoe repairs as time went on. I was going to St. Paul’s College in Raheny when I said to my dad, ‘let me out of school, so I can start in Curran’s full-time’. But the deal was that I had to wait until the Leaving Cert. So I did some of my Leaving Cert! I think it was the day of the history exam that one of my teachers walked through the door and saw me at work – he caught me rapid.
“I came in here, full-time, at 16 years of age. My first job was patching: tidying up holes in the shoes. Anything needing to be stitched goes to our machinery, which dates back to the 30s and 40s. One of them is called a trimmer, which has 17 rotating blades. If they fly, you jump out of the way – that’s the only safety guide we were given!
“You had a choice. You could patch, you could bench – i.e stick on the leather soles, heels – or you could operate, use the machinery. So I decided I wanted to patch, I wanted to bench, I wanted to operate, I wanted to serve at the front counter and then I wanted to do the keys. I was going to stay here until my dying day.
“I remember my first day so vividly: I remember getting the train in, coming in to the workshop. When I first came in here, you’d be earning 47 pounds a week – minus your taxes, minus your PRSI. Every sole I damaged, every needle I broke would be docked from my wages – that’s why the men specialised in one sector, because there’d be less chance of losing their wages by making a mistake.
“I was losing money hand over fist ‘cause I was wrecking soles and breaking needles. We then had to serve the nuns; there was a nun’s convent down the road, and my job was to go down, leave in their repaired shoes. You’d go down at 10 in the morning, and they might let you go at 4 in the afternoon. You’d still have to catch up on your day’s work after that. Then on a Friday evening, when the till was rung up, my father would ask, “Has John got a bonus?” and Curran would say, “No, no bonus for him this week”. You’d have to work late on a Saturday – you’d have to make up your hours.
“When we first started, we had a lot of doctors, solicitors and barristers coming in during the late 70s and 80s. We’d be dealing with a mile and a half square radius – that’s where our customers were. Then our clients expanded with the Darts arriving 25 years ago – suddenly we had customers coming from Howth to Bray, Dundalk, Maynooth, Athlone.. Even up to Belfast. Civil students used to come in and when they were being let go, they’d bring in the junior and give them the full orientation: where you go for coffee, where you go for a barber’s cut, and where you get your shoes repaired. So there would always be repeat business. You’d have fathers who were building surveyors bringing their sons on board, solicitors bringing their sons on board. Curran’s was the go-to place. We didn’t notice a break but in the last five years, when the government buildings stopped re-employing civil servants, there was no junior being brought in to take their position when someone was being let go or taking early redundancy or retirement. When the offices of those surveyors, solicitors and architects were being abandoned, we noticed a massive decline in business
“I have been lucky though, a lot of customers come from word-of-mouth. There’s a gentleman based down on Greystone Street in Tipperary, a lovely man – I’ve never met him, but he sends his shoes up to me twice a year with a cheque. He rings me to tell me whenever they’re coming up – he served his time on Fitzwilliam Square years upon years ago, and got to know Curran’s then.
“Most of the men’s shoes I would deal with now would range from 300 up to 1700/1800 sterling. We’d do a lot with John Lobbs Shoes, from London – they come in at £1750, no discount. You’d be afraid working on them. One repeat client, one gentleman brings in his two pairs of Churches shoes. They’re top-quality: I’d say I’ve repaired them about seven times each. He did pay £400 for them seven or eight years ago, but he’s still walking around in the best of leather, the height of comfort. He knows that with one initial payment on an expensive product, he’s going to have that high quality for the next ten years. His juniors are paying, let’s say, £150 twice a year – but they’re spending £300 every year on shoes for work.
“Nowadays we do get in a lot of stuff that’s bought online. It’s harder to work on that, because it’s of such low quality. Every single shoe is treated identically, with the same level of care, and every shoe is a journey. Every customer has to be delighted.”
“This place has been a shoes repairs for all of its life, but it’s effectively a shed at the back of a Georgian house, down the garden. There’s no heating. We’ve a top holding on the roof – courtesy of the landlord. It’s freezing cold in the winter, and baking warm in the summer. I think it would be nice if the government could turn around and support any business that’s remained doing the same trade, in the same shop.. and even encourage you to take on the trade, so that there’s someone to pass it on to. But there’s easier money than what you’d get from this. I just love my job.
“I’d be here, and a customer would walk through the door with shoes that have been repaired somewhere else. They’ll just be dead honest with me, and say that the repair shop they went to destroyed their shoes, and ask if there’s anything I can do to help. Taking the shoe apart, I’d see the damage that, as I call them, the chancers have done. I put the shoe back as good as I can, and the customer will come in with a £50 note in their hand. And I say, “No – you’ve already paid for that repair. You’ve paid someone else, but you’ve still paid for it. Next time you’re getting them done, I would appreciate if you come back.”
“Unfortunately, this trade will die with me. I know 7/8 shoe-repairers in Dublin now, and none would be able to operate our three machines. They wouldn’t even know how to turn them on. It’s also too dangerous a job. I’ve been very lucky – but I damaged part of my finger with a knife, and it still doesn’t fully bend back. That would scare a lot of fellas away. There are long hours… you could be here, and someone will come in and say they need 2/3 pairs of gents’ shoes for the morning, so you’ll be working until 10 or 11pm.
“It’s nice to see the shop keep going from 1937 until now, 80 years… thinking about it, if I could get it to 2037, twenty years from now, that would bring it to 100 years of age. That would be brilliant.”
The Shoe Cobbler – John Miley
Interview: Amelia O’Mahony Brady
Photographs: Aoife Herrity