Third-generation shoemaker: ‘When my grandfather started out, they were repairing a thousand pairs a week’

What I Do: Michael Tutty is a shoemaker in Naas, Co Kildare

You are born into shoemaking in a way. My parents were adamant I wasn’t going to go straight into the business from school. They encouraged me to go off and do something completely different from shoemaking. I studied mechanical engineering and worked abroad for a number of years. Shoemaking was always in my mind, though. It’s a lot of what defines the family name in the local area due to my grandfather, my uncle, my father, my grandmother and my auntie: they would all have been known as shoemakers in Naas for nearly 80 years.

My grandparents Nellie and George Tutty set up the business here in 1946. They would have lived above the original workshop. My grandfather had ended up in the industrial school in Artane and got the trade there.

From my teenage years, I was heavily involved. You spend your summers here working. You heard plenty of conversations around the dinner table about the day in the workshop. It was all-encompassing, as a lot of family businesses are. All walks of life come through the door. From an orthopaedic standpoint, there is a lot of emphasis on functionality. We start with a blank page and talk to the client about what they need.

We take measurements and sketches of the feet and then we make a last, which is the mould the shoe is shaped around. We have some lasts the early 1900s that we still use. They are from different old factories and we keep them alive here. The shapes are amazing, the understanding of the anatomy of the foot is second to none. On the wooden last, we will draw out the design of the shoe and translate that on to paper and then to card patterns and use those patterns to cut out the leather. The leather gets assembled like a jigsaw into what we call the “upper”, and then you put the sole on the upper to create the shoe.

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If you want a black pair of shoes, by all means, we are happy to make them. We have hundreds of thousands of types of leather here. People are always pushing the boundaries of what we think will go together. We really like working with people who love shoes and who take risks – it makes our lives interesting. You’d be looking at around €700 for a pair of shoes with ourselves, and they are designed to last with repairing them. You are purchasing a comfort level, and because the shoe is made for your foot, the leather is not straining as much. You can change the heels like changing the tyres of your car. They are lasting multiples of your shop-bought, non-repairable shoe. We have people 10, 15 and 20 years [wearing our] shoes.

When my grandfather started out, they would have been repairing a thousand pairs a week. People weren’t buying new products, they were taking care of what they had. It’s coming back around – people are interested in investing in a product that will last. Probably the most rewarding part is keeping people mobile. If it is a client with a bunion who cannot fit into a regular-sized shoe, we can give them that relief of a shoe that shapes around the foot. If there is a leg length discrepancy, or perhaps a reduced range of motion in the ankle, the footwear can keep them aligned. A shoe can take the stress and strain off their body. When a client has been compensating for a long time, when we can alleviate their pain, you see the smile on their faces, and it’s massively rewarding. If you have comfortable footwear, the knock-on effect is that you will exercise more.

We have people well into their 90s all the way down to toddlers for whom we would do modifications. Our longest-standing client would have come to us in 1947 when he was a child. He still comes to us every year. He is treasured. When he comes in, the kettle goes on and we hear what’s been going on. It’s beautiful – my grandfather passed away before I was born and you have people like that coming back and telling me stories about him. That brings him alive in my mind.

My favourite part is being in the workshop. I just love working there, you have the radio on, just working with the guys and girls

Down through the years, we have worked on a number of films. We made Brendan Gleeson’s boots for the Banshees of Inisheerin – we’ve made a couple of pairs for himself down through the years. For that film, it was footwear very traditional to Ireland in the early 1900s. The costume department was very clear about what they wanted us to make. When there was all the talk about the Oscars, there was brilliant excitement in the workshop.

My favourite part is being in the workshop. I just love working there, you have the radio on, just working with the guys and girls. You work closely with your colleagues on the next bench, learning from each other. We are always trying to bring on the trade of shoemaking.

Last weekend I was down in Ennistymon, Co Clare, and I was able to visit the workshop where my grandfather trained. Amazingly, that workshop was closed in the 1950s, and they just shut the doors. I was able to go in and see the work benches, still there, all covered in dust. To have that connection to the family is quite profound, there is great pride in being able to carry on the business. It’s funny – I don’t know, back in the 1920s, how much of a choice my grandfather had in shoemaking, or if someone in Artane told him he had to be a shoemaker. The knock-on effect of that, three generations later, is that we are still doing the trade.

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