Beneath the polished flagstones of Saint Canice’s magnificent cathedral, in Kilkenny, there lie the bones of a humble shoemaker. He lies there amid the tombs and memorials of noble knights and ladies, soldiers and bishops, a humble cobbler, a cordwainer, a follower of Saint Hugh, the martyr. And why not? It is likely that during his life, he brought more ease and happiness to people, than all the querulous bishops, preachers thundering from the pulpit, or bellicose knights clashing together on the field of battle. Saint Hugh was a shoemaker and early Christian martyr. He was, of course, hanged for his beliefs. His colleagues were forbidden to take his body from the gallows and over time, his bones fell to the ground. His fellow shoemakers gathered the bones and make implements out of them. Saint Hugh was venerated, ever afterwards, in their work.
I was a martyr myself, a martyr to sore feet and uncomfortable shoes. Everyone likes new shoes, the shine of polished leather and the authoritative rap of heels on floorboards—until you realise that the left one is pinching, just a little bit, over the instep. The right one rubs at the back of the heel. A bad buy. It will take time. I loved to walk home barefoot from the beach in summer. As far as Balbriggan Street corner with its high kerb anyway. I always managed to stub a toe there. In later life I went to Mr. Guilfoyle, the shoemaker. He lived near Gallows Green in Kilkenny. It has a less ominous name nowadays. He was known to make sandals for the Capuchins, an order distinguished for their piety and charity. I wanted to walk a mile or two in their shoes. By a special dispensation from the Pope, he made a pair for me. They were good for the sole. My life was transformed. I felt goodwill towards all. A circular bald spot began to emerge on the top of my head, a sure sign of sanctity. Margaret said that they looked dreadful, but I forgave her. She relented on the understanding that I would not wear them with socks. Why would I wear socks? Elephants flap their ears to cool the blood. Sandal-wearers wear sandals to maintain a flow of cool blood, from the extremities to the brain. “It’s all about footwear.” (Cliff Claven. Cheers) “All the great civilisations wore sandals.” (Ibid.)
I took Alan to an orthopaedic specialist to see about his feet. He turned his toes in, to the extent that it became a problem. He was tripping himself up. The specialist was in FitzWilliam Street, as were they all. That was before all the 199 year leases ran out on the old Georgian houses and the ESB made a dog’ dinner of the streetscape with their Stalinist block of offices. It was in the days when we paid doctors in guineas. ‘Walk him over to the door,’ said the consultant. ‘Now walk him back. Hmm.’ He wrote out a prescription. Take this up to my shoemaker’, (he wrote a name,) ‘in the Coombe and he will put a lift on his shoes. Twenty guineas, please.’ He wrote a receipt. It all took about five minutes. I did as directed. I had to carry the child some of the way. We had a nice trip, in every sense of the word. We came home on the train and walked across the field where our new house stood. The field had been dug up for drains and new roads. We walked through a blizzard of thistledown. The prescription worked. It was worth every guinea. He ran and kicked footballs and climbed walls, until the shoes were in flitters. It became necessary to get new shoes and of course, new lifts. I couldn’t face the journey to Dublin. It made sense to bring the prescription to Mattie Grimley, son of Tommie Grimley, in Barrack Lane, (Little Strand Street). Mattie came from a shoemaking family. My father-in-law always spoke about how he would sit in Tommie’s workshop after work and chat. He spoke very highly of Tommie Grimley.
I explained the situation to Mattie.
‘Lifts? Aye. Three eighths of an inch.’
‘Doctor Brady said a quarter of an inch. It’s in the prescription.’
‘Doctor Brady of FitzWilliam Square. He’s a leading orthopaedic consultant.’ (Did you ever hear of a reasonably good consultant or a downright menace of a consultant? Christian Barnard, the leading heart transplant consultant, in fairness the first of his kind, recommended making love to lots of young women and drinking lots of red wine, for a healthy heart. Sounds good in theory but he died not long afterwards. I digress.)
Mattie peered at the letter. ‘Never heard of him. I always do three eighths.’
I had paid twenty guineas for that letter. He handed the paper back to me. He gave a non-committal grunt. I contemplated going back to Doctor Brady and tackling him about the measurement. Mattie Grimley’s brother was a bishop, after all.
Mattie did the job. He charged me seven shillings and sixpence. I was not qualified to question his workmanship. It worked.
Fergus introduced triathlon into the family. He awakened a sleeping dragon. Alan became attracted to the sport. The house filled with lycra, running shoes and bikes. He doesn’t break in new shoes. He breaks in his feet to fit them. It’s an endurance sport. The two other brothers, Tom and Justin were drawn into swimming. Justin has progressed to Ironman. Alison is no mean cyclist. Sarah has dipped her toes in the triathlon waters.
We went to Hawaii to support Alan in the World Championships and (incidentally?) to attend his wedding to Eimear. He did well on both counts.
A group of young Americans cheered on their friend, Brad with that alarming enthusiasm of the athletic Christian. ‘Great stuff, Brad. Jesus is with you.’ (Jesus, a sandal wearer.) I have never quite understood why Jesus favours one athlete over another or one army over another. Why is he in the corner for one boxer and not equally for another? I suppose all fights, matches and races would end in a draw. All wars would end in a draw.Why bother? Brads are little nails used by shoemakers.
Alan is now an experienced ironman, going from strength to strength. The bloody fellow came third in the world in his age group. He has just announced that he is going to coach others to follow in his footsteps. I think I’ll stick with the sandals.
Mattie Grimley must have known a thing or two.
See for yourself at http://chaosireland.com/index.html