We are standing inside a small shoe repair shop just off Baggot Street and John Miley is talking to us about machines. When we think of the word “machine” today, we often think of computers, cars, household appliances, and a million other things we encounter in every day life.
But if we look at the true meaning of the word we might imagine something else entirely. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a machine is, “An apparatus using mechanical power and having several parts, each with a definite function and together performing a particular task.”
In the back of the shop, away from the street and behind the workshop itself, stands a true machine in every sense of the word – a tall, steel, grey blocky structure of industry, dominating the space. Undoubtedly from a different time, this is something with a function and a task. It's at least six foot tall and must be nearly twice as long. Three panels with tantalising green start and red stop buttons are spaced out along the top, begging to be pressed. Underneath, angled rotary brushes that run the length of the machine are still in mid air. This, John tells us, is a finisher.
It's used to polish and buff every part of a shoe and it stands alongside three or four other smaller machines - some that are used to stitch soles on, some that strip leather off. John is describing them to us, telling us how one could take the leather soles off a shoe in seconds, about the fierce noise there used to be with all the machines running at once, as leather belts barelled around a single motor to keep them all in gear, and about how those belts would occasionally snap all of a sudden.
“You'd be minding your own business and get a clip in the ear.”
And it's in this manner that the interior of Currans Shoe Repairs on Baggotrath Place whirrs to life.
John, dressed in well-worn navy overalls, shows us around the shop comprised of a small counter with a till and shelves stacked with shoes waiting to be repaired or collected. A plate glass window looks hazily out onto Baggot Street. In the back is a wooden workbench loaded up with tools and shoes, bits of leather, tins of this and that. And sunk into the outer wall stands that stocky machine.
Founded in 1938 by Michael Curran, Hubert Miley (John's father) later joined the venture and they ran the business together until 1980 when Michael retired and Hubert bought his share. John himself started working in the shop at the age of ten, sweeping up and doing odd jobs and retained the title of the “Tea Boy” until almost twenty years ago when Patrick O'Neill, one of the men who worked in the shop and trained John, retired.
Upon finishing school in Raheny’s St. Pauls, John thought about becoming a pilot, but ultimately felt that his “heart was always in the shop”. He says, “When I'd come in here [as a child] and the smell of the grease and the overalls, it was happy days.” And despite himself, you get a sense from him that a big part of that draw was, and continues to be, the people he meets through the shop.
The business has been built by word of mouth, with some customers coming for the last thirty years. John repaired shoes for a woman recently who he remembers coming in to the shop as a child with her father, and her grandfather before that. He has also often been introduced to a new customer on a Friday night in Doheny & Nesbitts pub where an existing customer (solicitors and office workers) introduces him to a colleague. As well as people in the local area, people travel from all over the country to bring their shoes to him.
“There's a lovely man from Wexford who sends in around seven pairs at a time.”
In what will be his thirty-eighth year in the shop, John now runs it single-handedly. Listening to him and looking around the shop, you're struck with the sense of care, attention to detail, and pride - that John takes in his craft. He shows us the sole of a shoe and what it takes to strip it right back, to build it up again, and the knife work that involves.
The customers he talks about know if this has been done properly, which goes some way in explaining why people travel from elsewhere in the country to entrust their shoes to Currans. John also tells us it wouldn't be unusual to get a call from a customer who is in town on a Saturday contemplating buying a pair of shoes, but asking his opinion on the quality of the shoe before parting with their money. He reams off designer names of some of the shoes sitting on the shelf, and there's a thank you card from the designer Louise Kennedy surreptitiously pinned to a cork noticeboard.
John also remembers a woman that came in to thank him after the repair-work he did on her shoes - it turns out she was amongst the Irish contingent who accompanied President Higgins to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace last year. The shoes, dear reader, were fit for a Queen.
All of this is so at odds with much of our modern mindset - where our approach is often to buy something new rather than fix something that's broken. Currans customers are concerned with continuity and longevity. So is John. Through his interactions with customers down through the years, he seems to have accrued an astute sense not only of their needs but of the changing role of the shop as it has adapted to a different pace of life. The clientele have inevitably changed too and John recalls that the “ladies of the night” who used to frequent the area and the square in the seventies and eighties.
“There was one who'd come in here with no bra to get her shoes done, and you were only a kid, you weren't supposed to know what she worked as. I'd be mortified.”
By the same token, girls who were going out to Barberallas and Zhivagos nightclubs would call in on a Friday night to get their shoes re-heeled before heading out for a night of dancing.
At the other end of the spectrum, John remembers doing the shoes for the Sisters of Silence convent, with whom Currans had a contract. As a teenager, he'd have to cycle up to them, collect the shoes out of a hatch, later collect the money out of the hatch, and then get to work on them. All of which paints a very different picture of Baggot Street today – populated as it is mostly by offices.
A sense of concerted effort to retain threads or traditions from the past pervades in Currans - from the ethos of preservation of those things we own to the preservation of the craft itself. The machines are an example of this – John tells us they were bought from a British company who also used to supply the old Winstanley factory in Dublin 8. Hubert, John's father knew that it was those machines rather than anything more modern that would achieve the high standards to which they held themselves. When the Winstanley factory closed, John tells us that Curran's were also able to hold on to some of the Winstanley heels. These are classic leather heels with rubber tips and some of them are still in the shop today. John keeps them for special occasions, and for a select few of his older customers, who he feels would appreciate the rare leather heels from a part of Dublin history.
On the way out the door stands another monument from the past. It's an elegant Adler machine – glossy black with gold lettering – that looks something like an old Singer sewing machine. It was found in a shed in Killaloe and John tells us it's designed for stitching the uppers of shoes. He still uses it today, considering it superior to its modern counterparts.
But it is still the older machines that John has the true affinity for, particularly the stitching machines. He switches them on and they make a furious clattering sound as they erupt into life. Shudderingly, they've occasionally seen a finger stitched to a shoe. “These machines are 1930s, possibly 40s, they are the machines that shoe making was built on. You'd have fellas who've been doing shoe repairs for 20 or 30 years and they wouldn't have seen those machines – they wouldn't have a clue what they are. They are the original machines that stitched on the shoes of the gentry years ago – 67 stitches for every shoe."
A shoe still takes 67 stitches and John tells us how meticulous he has always had to be about that. “I'd turn it on and say 'I'm not counting', but '64, '65, '66 ...', I can't help it, it has to be finished properly.”
This attention to detail, the immense care and consideration that goes into the the work, makes me think of those few customers for whom John keeps the Winstanley heels. I picture the type of men they might be, immaculately turned out with exquisite well-loved leather shoes, walking around the city, one imagines, with the same due care in wearing those shoes as it took to make and repair them.
Written by Sinead Fox ©2015
Photos by Adam O'Keeffe ©2015
NEXT UP - The Stores of The Natural History Museum / Monday 4th of May, 2015