One hundred and ten years ago Athy had no less than eight shoemakers. Ballylinan had one. His name was Edward Wynne. Today his grandson, also named Edward Wynne, is the only shoemaker in South Kildare.
Apprenticed at an early age to his father John Wynne, Edward or "Ned" as he is generally known has worked at his craft in Athy since 1938. The Wynne family tradition of shoemaking started even before Ned's grandfather's time for it is known that his great grandfather was a master craftsman working in Carlow.
On the 4th of January, 1938 Ned Wynne left his father's workshop in Ballylinan and set up business in his own account in a front room of Bridget Howard's house in Leinster Street. Today, fifty five years later, Ned is still working from the same front room being part of No. 63 Leinster Street which he bought some years ago.
Sitting in the makeshift shoemakers seat which traditionally holds all the tools required for the job, Ned wears as he has done every day for almost sixty years the hard leather apron of the shoemaker. Specially reinforced at chest level to give maximum protection from the paring and cutting knives used in his craft, the gum stained leather apron tells of years of use by the local shoemaker.
Nowadays the work of the shoemaker is confined to repairing shoes. Years ago the task most enjoyed by skilled craftsmen such as Ned was the making of welted shoes or pegged boots. The wooden lasts designed to suit most shoe sizes now lie undisturbed on the shelves. The iron last is now in every day use as Ned heels and soles the factory mass produced shoes of today.
Ned last made a pair of shoes in 1971 and regrets the changes which have been brought about in the footwear industry. He recalls the various stages which had to be gone through in making a pair of boots or shoes to order.
The customers feet were measured using the shoemakers size stick and measure strap. These give not only the traditional shoe size but also measurements of the ankle, the heel, the instep and between the little toe and the ball of the big toe. Translating those measurements to the wooden lasts was part of the shoemakers skill. The cutting of the various leathers, boxed calf for the upper, hard leather for the soles and belly leather for the insoles were skills painstakingly acquired over the years. Hand sewing of the different leathers combined with use of the Singer closing machine for stitching light uppers presented the shoemaker with some of the most difficult parts of the job.
The thread waxed by the shoemaker on his premises and called wax end provided the stitching for welted shoes or boots. Small wooden pegs were used instead of wax end to secure the uppers to the sole of farmers boots. Called pegged boots the wooden peg ensured that water would not enter the boot, a requirement so necessary in our inclement weather conditions.
Ned remembers that in the 1940's a pair of pegged boots were made for twenty five shillings, while a hand make pair of shoes cost thirty two shillings.
As he points out, shoemakers who have become rare nowadays are not to be confused with shoe repairers or cobblers. All shoemakers are capable of doing repairs, but shoe repairers are unlikely to have learned the skill of shoemaking. As he works alone in the front room of No. 63 Leinster Street, Ned Wynne can rightly claim to be the last of the old craftsmen still working in Athy in 1993. In 1883 his grandfather worked as a shoemaker in an area where saddlers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths and coopers were still working at their crafts. Today Ned Wynne, after almost 60 years at his craft, is the last of the town craftsmen and when the time comes for him to leave down his tools an era will come to an end.