Body and sole: The many benefits of custom-made shoes

Neil O’Donnell has a warning about mass-produced sports shoes and footwear

Neil O'Donnell likes Dún Laoghaire. He likes doing business in the south Co Dublin coastal town, even if it's been a bit of a leap for a Malahide-reared northsider. "In fairness," he says, "Dún Laoghaire's been very good to me since I started up in January. Local people have given me lots of work, both for orthotics and custom-mades. I like it here."

O’Donnell is in the shoemaking business and comes from a long line of shoemakers. His greatest joy is making custom-built footwear, everything from the initial “clicking” out of a shoe’s upper to lasting and shaping it to the customer’s foot. “It’s the biggest thing I do, really, even though custom-making orthotics and my contract work for the HSE ensures the rent.”

O’Donnell works from a bright, pleasing premises on Dún Laoghaire’s Upper George’s Street, his window display and business a nice fit with the strip of shops in that part of the town. On his feet he wears a pair of tan-brown, half-wing leather brogues with leather soles and heels. His working shoes are, naturally, made by himself.

Shoemaking is a lifestyle choice for O’Donnell. “My father, who was called Hugh O’Donnell, was a shoemaker in Malahide,” he says. “I grew up with it and learned from him. His family were shoemakers in Tipperary as far back as 1945. Out of a family of five, I’m the only one who took up the trade.” (None of his own five children have chosen shoemaking either.) “I never wanted to do anything else. I enjoy the creativity of making for people and the happiness on their faces when they walk away.”


Custom business

Custom-making footwear begins with a talk with the customer about style. After this the leather is chosen, cut into the desired shape with the clicker, stitched together and hand-lasted. The customer then comes back for a fitting and, all going well, the job is completed.

O’Donnell makes fashion and horse-riding boots, dance shoes, the lot. Expensive boots can cost €1,200, shoes from €695, but the orders keep coming.

He says he enjoys his contract work for the HSE and does “house calls when necessary. People come in with their medical card for footwear they couldn’t otherwise afford. The majority of my customers have medical needs. People with diabetes need non-chrome leather shoes; others need ankle and foot orthotics, or medical lifts. Customers will have tried all sorts before discovering pain relief and how to walk upright again with support shoes.”

Words of warning

He has warning words about mass-produced sports shoes and everyday footwear.

“I’m seeing lots of kids, 11- to 14-year-olds, who’ve no proper support in modern shoes. The shoes are fashionably lovely but manufacturers have cut back on extras like inbuilt supports. In August I had about 14 or 15 youngsters in with their mothers before going back to school wanting a foot impression to make a set of orthotic insoles to fit all of their shoes, help support the foot and leg muscles from pain. A lot of football and rugby boots, as well as fashionable shoes, have no support inside. Sports clinic doctors are seeing it all the time.”

The world of shoemaking is a small one. O’Donnell mentions the Cleggs of Dublin and other shoemaking families – George Tutty in Naas, Des Kennedy in Cork, Ballinasloe’s Derek Murphy. The Enterprise Board asked him to train people in the trade but it is, he says, “hard to find young people interested”.

O’Donnell has a 4½-year lease and laughs when he says “please God and touch wood it’ll be okay by then. They say you should give a business three years. I’ll follow the work and see about opening elsewhere. I’ve got Cork in my sights; people travel to me from Cork as well as from Cashel, Wicklow, Wexford, all over.”