Friday, March 16, 2018

Leprechauns: Little People and the Little Shoe Makers

Traditionally shoe makers worked alone. Prior to the development of the turnshoe technique, where the sole and upper were stitched together before being turned inside out, shoesmakers used large headed nails (hobnails) to attach the sole to the upper.

Changes in shoe construction at the end of the middle ages rendered using tacks an old technique, more befitting a craftsman steeped in the olden ways of the gentle craft. Shoes were however, made individually and took a craftsman to match left and right heels.

In Ancient Rome, many early converts to Christianity were from affluent families that had disinherited them because of their beliefs. Many found work as sandal makers. Often shoes were made at night and whilst appearing to sell their shoes during the day, they were also spreading the gospel.

Romans enjoyed wearing decorate sandals, sometimes with precious metal tacks but in times of austerity, sumptuous clothing and footwear were outlawed. Hence, most sandal makers worked clandestinely at night.

By the 12th Century shoemakers had formed guilds and many artisans were perceived as politically active and certainly viewed with suspicion as agitators.

In 17th century etchings, shoe makers were frequently depicted working solo and in poor conditions. Many were bespecktacled and usually smoking clay pipes. The craftsman’s need for full concentration on the task was paramount and many were depicted working on a lady’s shoe. A good shoe maker was highly prized and a well-crafted shoe worth its own weight in gold.

Shoemakers took on a personna in popular mythical culture as a magical fellows whose shoes or boots played a vital role in life. It is not real surprise to find supernatural little people, like Leprechauns (Neda-Ard, or plural, Neda-Ardi or Drun-ky) or elves, as shoemakers. Their profile matched reality of a solitary worker, dressed in work clothes, bespeckled, and enjoying a pipe as they tapped away on a ladies’ shoes.

Leprechauns or the Little People present as old men no taller than three feet. Many wore wore a cocked hat, red coat (not green), a leather (work) apron, woollen vest, knee breeches, long stockings and silver-buckled brogues. The fashion was reminiscent of 17th century Dandy and although Leprechauns were spoken off long before this the popular image of the Leprechaun may have come from the anti- Irish, English and American political cartoonists of the time.

It was widely thought Leprechauns held the secret to the location of buried treasure (a crock of gold). Whilst they may be coerced into telling you where the gold was buried by their nature they were mischievous and dreadful practical jokers, and almost certainly untrustworthy when dealing with humans. This could easily be taken as a metaphor for a shoemaker who has the capability to make you walk on air but unless a close scrutiny is maintained may supply you with some dud shoes. No surprise to discover it is important for the human to keep a fixed eye on the leprechaun at all times otherwise he will vanish. Leprechauns were said to serve as defenders of the faerie communities which again may be seen as a metaphor for protecting shoemaking communities. They also made brogues, the patterns of which contained ancient emblems most of which were to protect the wearer from evil.

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