Medieval Irish Shoes

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From clothes, to shoes! I was so happy to run across this old post on Ahcuah, a blog for barefoot enthusiasts:

Partly I was just happy to discover such a thing as Barefoot Enthusiasts. I now know there are people out there who would appreciate my callouses, and not side-eye me like the pedicure technicians at the nail salon. I’ve felt so alone in this for so long.

But mostly I was surprised to find out the Irish barefoot tradition continued so late as 150 years ago. It makes me even prouder of my Irish ancestors.

The Irish have had shoes forever, clearly. Like this very nice one Joyce shows in “A Social History of Ancient Ireland.” In his book he describes several common types of shoe, and goes into attention-span-taxing detail on how the leather was prepared and sewn, if you’re into that sort of thing. Shoes, sandals, leggings with stirrups like the 1990’s, the ancient Irish had it all.

Ancient Irish ornamented shoe: in National Museum
Very nice ancient Irish shoes, no reason not to wear them.

I discovered Ahcuah’s post while looking for more information about barefoot Irish warriors, though. I knew the ancient Celts went barefoot at least some of the time, way back when. It was a proof of hardiness, and a way to be stealthier in the hunt. That, too, continued on much later than I’d thought, according to this very entertaining article by Katharine Simms

She describes a medieval Irish fascination with going barefoot, possibly more as a nostalgic practice than as a practical way of dressing every day. Apparently, before any warrior could enter the legendary band of Finn’s Fianna, he had to pass a number of tests, including that “without slackening his pace he could with his nail extract a thorn from his foot.” So Finn’s spiritual descendants would have felt some pressure to keep up the tradition.

Simms associates the medieval barefoot warriors with a period of collective nostalgia for their own mythical past (retelling of ancient stories, rebuilding of feasting halls, etc.). This makes sense to me, kind of the way some people today are out to re-make John Wayne movies in real life, never mind the fact that John Wayne movies were never real to begin with.

I do think barefoot pairs well with breechless and a kilt, so I hope it was, in fact, common. I’m writing it that way.

Also from Joyce’s book, this nice diagram of what (he says) is a fairly common archaeological find: leather or metal shoes joined together so as to be completely unusable for anything other than sitting or standing in place.

Pair of shoes permanently connected by straps: two soles and straps cut out of one piece. Most beautifully made.

He says nobody knows what purpose these may have served, but there have been enough of them found that it must have been something fairly well-understood to contemporaries.

My theory is that it was an early medieval Mother’s Day gag gift, something like this:

Socks that read "If you can read this, bring me a glass of wine" on the soles.
My favorite socks.

I can picture barefoot medieval guy giving his wife a pair of stationary silver shoes and a new wineglass, and they have a good laugh together about how she never does any housework, and then she tells him to go fill her new wine glass, and he argues it’s not his job, but then he goes ahead and does it, because divorce was already legal in Ireland in those days, and she would have kept 60% of their sheep.

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