Kells Archaeological & Historical Society






(born 1937) 

Paddy is native of Kells and has lived in the town all his life, Has resided at Oliver Plunkett Road since 1964. . Worked at Tara Shoes 1954-73. Then spent 30 years working at Wellman’s. Married to Anne who also worked at Tara Shoes.

Paddy & Anne Sutton


DC:     This is Danny Cusack at 19 Oliver Plunkett Road Kells on Tuesday 6 July 2010 talking to Paddy Sutton about his experiences in the Tara Shoe factory.

Paddy, thanks for talking to us today. Could you please tell me when you first started working at Tara Shoes?

PS:      I started working at Tara Shoes in 1954. I was 16 going on 17 at the time. I had spent a year in a garage beforehand but the money was poor. The money was better in the shoe factory so I started in February in Tara Shoes and spent 19 years in it – until the day it closed.

DC:     That’s a big part of your working life – 19 years …

PS:      Yes, it was certainly..

DC:     So you were probably in your mid-thirties then …?

PS:      Yes, I was.

DC:     Could you tell us what kind of work you did during your spell there?

PS:      My part of the job was to put the heel piece into the shoe that is the piece that keeps your shoe stiff at the back. It was actually called a stiffener. That was my part in the operation. There were two men before me, who did their portion of the job, then it moved onto me and I did my portion of the job. The shoes came on trolleys and I pushed what I had finished into the next man, then the operation continued on.

DC:     Did you find his work particularly easy or difficult …?

PS:      No, it was quite light work, nothing very heavy in the shoe factory.

DC:     What hours did you work?

PS:      At the start it was pretty long. We used to work from 8 to 6, then down through the years being newly managed they’d take half an hour off this year and a half hour off the next year so eventually we ere working an eight hour day.

DC:     That leads into the question of wages and working conditions. Could you comment on them?

PS:      The wages weren’t great but they were good for the time. When I started I was on 16s. Now again because it was unionised it was great. So every year I got an increase in my wages until I got up to the normal wage.

DC:     Your fellow workers, do any particularly come to mind? Any impressions you had any incidents during your 19 years there?

PS:      A lot of things but they don’t come to mind. One thing that happened to every young boy starting in it, we were sent out … we were situated near the train station… we started as a young boy, we didn’t know much. But the first thing they sent you for was for a bucket of steam to the railway station. Now in these times the station master would know all about this, so he would leave you standing on the station until the train came in and he would be over to you with a bucket with a lid on it and send you back to the shoe factory. So when you back to the shoe factory there was a big cheer because everyone knew that you had been set for a bucket o steam.

            The other funny item with the young boys – it didn’t happen to the ladies – you’d be sent up to one of the shops in the town for the long wait. So you’d be left waiting, so you’d achieved a long wait. These are little items that every boy went through when he started in the shoe factory.

DC:     So they were initiations of a kind …

PS:      Initiations, yes …

DC:     Knocking a bit of Craic out of the workers, a form of slagging …

PS:      Yes. When you got back you had to put up with the slagging. You knew that you’d been had, so you could live with it.

DC:     It came with the territory I suppose …

PS:      It came with territory.

DC:     Your supervisor or immediate employer did you have any strong memories or impressions of him?

PS:      My immediate supervisor in the room I worked in was a man called John Finnegan. Now, I knew him because everyone in the shoe factory knew everyone else because we were all Kells People. My father knew him. My father was in the shoe factory before me. John Finnegan was OK as a supervisor. He was fair but strict. You did your job, you did it well, you got praise for it and that was the end of it. If you made a mistake then you suffered the consequences. You’d get what for.

DC:     And John Finnegan was a Kells man …?

PS:      He was.

DC:     I think there was a supervisor called Mick Daly there for many years … before your time was he?

PS:      No, Micky Daly was there too. John Finnegan was the supervisor, Micky Daly an assistant manger. We had supervisors in every room. In the men’s room down the back you had Jimmy Morris, Paddy Murphy, and John Finnegan. You had Maureen Dunne in the ladies. They were all the ground supervisors. Then Micky Daly was the man above that. He was the man who decided what would be done today, what would be done tomorrow and all that kind of thing.

DC:     Two brothers called the Pickups were actually the head boys … were they there during your time?

PS:      When I went in they were just finishing up their time. There were too Pickups from Yorkshire. He was called Arthur and she was called Alice. They were there when I entered between 1953 and 1954. Then things changed after that and we had another who came called Thomas. He was there were many years, and then we had Harry Sanders. He was an Austrian. He was the last man in the shoe factory, he as there until it closed in 1973.

DC:     It’s good to get an exact year because I didn’t have one until now.

PS:      Well, it was 29 January 1973. I remember it well because I was in the union at the time and had a lot to do with redundancies and stuff like that.

DC:     So that date is etched indelibly in your memory for personal as well as work reasons. Well come to the union stuff a bit later. Would you say overall it was a good firm to work for?

PS:      It was a decent firm to work for. Now there were ups and downs like things would be a bit slack and we might be on three days a week. But when you were on three days a week they would always give you your three days off – say Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday so you could sign Thursday and Friday and Saturday too –that doesn’t come into it nowadays. So we had three days signing and three days working. The other thing about it was that we had a scheme where we paid sixpence a week in. Everybody gave sixpence so you had a free doctor and a free dentist.            That was very good, you know. Then every year we had our shoe factory dinner dance which was held in the local Vincent de Paul Hall – and sometimes in the old courthouse at the start. And as well as that we had a children’s party with Santa and every child got a very good present. So all in all it was a decent firm to work for.

DC:     Sounds as though there was a very good social life.

PS:      Yes, there was.

MS:     And the camaraderie between us in the factory was brilliant.

DC:     So your experience here was generally happy.

PS:      Yes, yes.

DC:     You mentioned there your role as a trade unionist. Would you talk a little bit more about the role of the trade union in the workplace and perhaps your own role?

PS:      We were in what was called the Irish Shoe and Leather Workers Union. The head office was in Droghedaand the head man there I used deal with was called Michael Bell …

DC:     Later a TD …

PS:      Yes. There wasn’t a big role in the union because it never reached the stage where we went on strike. But there was little items … Some of us used be on what was called piecework where you get so much for each item of the job done … per dozen shoes at the time. And of course the management always wanted cut a little bit here and there and everywhere, same what goes on nowadays. This is where the union stepped in, to protect our wages. But I was a stop steward for a few years … we never had a strike. We always managed to settle our differences – eventually. It might take a while but eventually it was settled.

DC:     So industrial relations were generally fairly harmonious and employers fairly cooperative with the trade unions.

PS:      Yes, we were all in the trade union; it was part of the employment that you joined the union. You didn’t have strikes.

DC:     Do you remember any significant changes in work practices over the year, perhaps involving new technology and so on? Was there big changes?

MS:     One of the biggest changes was when the girls were put into the closing room.

PS:      In the ladies room. It was a bit higgledy piggledy. You used to have girls running up and down with stuff that this lady and that lady could sew but eventually then they spent some money on a conveyor system. So the conveyor system ran the full length of the room with the machines each side of it so that if this lady down here wanted something she put up her hand and the lady at the far end would put it in the conveyor belt and take it down to her. That was about the biggest thing really. Things changed a lot down the years. Now for instance in what we used to call the press room which was where the soles used to be put together for your shoe. It came in as massive big piece of leather and the press room had the biggest machines. They were the size of this room here. Big presses: And the leather was out together … You’d be cutting maybe that depth of leather, maybe half a foot of leather in the same piece. And the soles would be cut out of that and the heels would be cut out of that. And they’d all be put together then as one unit and then sent up to the room where I worked. Later on in years all that practice was stopped and we were buying in stuff from Europe which was coming complete. So we were buying in a piece with the complete sole and heel like you have in your shoe nowadays all in the one piece. What other things now? Thinking of another change. They were the major things.

DC:     What type of shoes was manufactured?

PS:      Well, we made ladies fashion shoes and we made ladies summer sandals, ladies high boots, men’s sandals, ladies sholes.. They were made for another crowd, Sholes, you’ve heard of em? We made for them. Plus we made ladies’ fashion shoes for another company called Norvic Shoes. All in all now we were quite busy you know.

DC:     You manufactured a big variety of shoes.

PS:      A big variety, yes. And of course the ladies fashion shoes were made in the summer for the winter. So as the seasons went on … in the winter we made summer sandals so that when the summer came along the stuff was ready for the market. Now when I talk about the market we had two salesmen that used go around all the shops and they’d have our samples with them. And that’s where our main products came from … all the shops: Dublin, all over Ireland.

DC:     So the market was much wider than Kells, it was all over the country …

PS:      Yes, yes …

MS:     If we were depending on Kells we wouldn’t have got anywhere!

DC:     Sure with the small population. And overseas: Britain for example?

PS:      Well, the stuff we made for Sholes, they certainly went overseas.


DC:     You mentioned the railway in terms of the little incident. How important was the railway overall for the business and the local economy in Kells.

PS:      Absolutely nothing at all. It was never used. All our stuff went out in vans. We had two vans. And all the shoes were put in the back of a van. A local man, a chap named Joe Keyes, was the van driver. He went all over Ireland.

DC:     So the railway didn’t come into the picture much. Not in that regard anyway. I read somewhere that at its height the shoe factory employed 240 people, perhaps even more at one stage, so obviously it was vital to the whole economy and people …

MS:     It was the biggest employer in the town.

PS       I don’t know how many names I have here …: referring to a handwritten list:

MS:     But they were all different years you know …

PS:      But it was a thriving industry. Unfortunately we fell foul of Europe because people started importing Italian shoes, Italian mostly. And we couldn’t compete with the price that they were selling at. So eventually the trade went down. We got a bit of a boost the year before it closed. We had people come from London who were going to buy a factory. They were in Paris and they were talking about … now because I was involved in the union I was involved in this as well, in the talks … and they were going to revamp the whole place – put in new conveyor belts, new systems – and there would be redundancies … that is why I was involved. But I don’t know what happened.  The whole ting fell flat on its face, it never happened. That was early in 1972 and in ’73 of course it closed.

DC:     In 1973 Ireland went into the European Community, so there’s a connection there. Although you can’t put it all down to the European Community … if it closed down in the same year there must have been other factors involved as well.

PS:      Well, there was decline in shoe factories all over Ireland because I used to be in touch with people – I’d meet them through the union – from different shoe factories all over. Now there were shoe factories within … well, the nearest to us would have been Bailieboro … and there was several shoe factories up in the North that we used to be in touch with because … what we used to do was if we were short something and we couldn’t get it – or there was too long a wait for it – you could go up to some of the other factories and nearly take some stuff off them and use it … you know …

DC:     So you sort of helped one another out in that respect …

How did the economic ups and downs of those years impact on your own life? Were there peaks and troughs? Or was there certain constancy?

PS:      Well the only trough was when three days a week came. We were quite busy … I mean one year when there was a very warm summer we decided to start work at six in the morning because … in 1964 that was … it was too hot … the shoe factory wasn’t made for … there was no fans, nothing like that … you know … and we were working under glass in the main room. So to get away from that the unions and the management came to agreement that we would start work at six in the morning and finish at four, which was the warmest part of the day. But that went on for quite a while do you know. So that didn’t last for too long because the weather changed …

MS:     We were just after moving into this house and some of our workers came up to help us clean the house and get it ready for us to move in.

PS:      We got married in the shoe factory. Now both of us were working there. My mother and father were working in it and sisters were working in it, so everybody knew everybody else. Because we all neighbours more or less do you know? And we’d head off say for the eight o’clock start in the morning … at that time in the morning if you were a stranger you’d be asking: where are all those people going? Because we were all heading in the one direction. So we all headed for the shoe factory. We had an hour’s break at one o’clock. So obviously people didn’t have cars. You either walked or you had a bicycle. And you had to be back in time …

MS:     And you had to be in on time or your pay would be docked …

PS:      That was very strict. We had a bell in the factory and Micky Daly – that was the manager – well if you had your break in the morning – say for ten minutes - but if the bell went off on time for you to  finish, you daren’t … you had to start … whether you ‘d had your break or not, you started. They were very very strict about timing. But I suppose all in all it was a decent wage at the time. There was nothing better …

MS:     And when we left … when it closed … we got redundancy. Paddy got around 300 and I got around 200 and we put in the central heating with it at the time!

DC:     That was a bonus …

MS:     That was a big lot of money to get in your hand. But when we came into this house first Paddy’s wages were around 15 and he finished on a Friday,

            and went into Wellmans of a Wednesday and he doubled his wages. So there was that bit of a gap.

PS:      When the shoe factory closed my wages were 19/23s.

MS:     And when I went into the factory in 1954 my wages was 14s/11d. From eight o’clock to six o’clock. That was a lot of hours for 14s/11d and I thought I was made up. And I gave it to mother and she gave me back half a crown.

PS:      But at the time now it was decent money because, remember, there as nothing much those years.

DC:     People weren’t  living extravagantly …but  frugally. And what year did you get married.

PS:      We got married in 1961.

MS:     And we moved in here 1964.

PS:      Now I was very lucky at the time because there was a lot of people when this redundancy came up … being in the union we were hoping to … there was a lot of men in the factory at the time and their jobs were dependent on the shoe factory for their wages – and we could see nothing else at the end of the tunnel. So we all got together and we decided maybe we’d hang on and form a coop and put all our redundancy money into it. Now there were a lot of people for it but when it came to the crunch a lot of women wouldn’t bother because they were going to be out of work anyway. So they could see the redundancy money but they couldn’t see further than that. So at the end of the day the whole thing fell through.

MS:     It was a blessing in disguise though.

PS:      It was a blessing in disguise because this factory opened down the road – Wellman International. And they came to the shoe factory before it closed actually and they said that any man there would have a job in Wellmans – if they wanted it. Some of us took that up because I went in there the next week, so I was only out for a week. I spent thirty years in Wellmans. And some of the men went to the buildings in Dublin. That was the two places: it was either Wellmans or the buildings in Dublin. I was advised not to go into Wellmans because it was an American firm and it would be closed in twelve moths because once their tax break was up they’d be gone. Well Wellmans are still there.

DC:     It had some ups and downs in that that time. I talked to Willie Carr extensively about his time in Wellmans. Willie did a long stint there.

PS:      I worked with Willie in it.

DC:     Just staying with Tara Shoes for a minute, do you have any other outstanding memories; perhaps amusing incidents or even sad incidents down through those years that might sort of capture the flavour of the place …?

PS:      Well, we had a very sad incident in one of the young women in the closing room, Mary Tormay was her name – now she got cancer at the time and this went on for quite a while. So eventually when she did die people were very down. It was one of the saddest moments in the shoe factory. Because she was only a young girl starting her life.

MS:     And as well we all gave some money each week to buy a cross for the chapel. Now that cross is still in the chapel. When they renovated the chapel they were going to do away with the cross, but we said: No that was bought. Now that cost us money we couldn’t afford …but then that was done. Then we had an argument one time over windows, opening windows …. [To husband] Do you remember; something happened to the window, it broke and the frost was let in or something  And we all wanted to wear our coats and gloves and we all stood in the room and Sam, came in and he said: No, we couldn’t. We had to get on and do the work. And we were all standing together and one woman stood up and said: I don’t mind, it’s not anymore cold than usual. So that was it!

DC:     End of story …

MS:     End of story. We were all but back and made work…

PS:      Another union matter … another union matter. But …

MS:     But mostly we stuck together …

PS:      But…it’s got a long history now Tara Shoes. My father went into it in 1932. And it was a garage at the time – there was a garage owned by George Cooney, now there are still photographs around of that garage. And he worked in it until it shut for the years of the war. And I don’t know when it opened after that, I suppose …

DC:     I can check that, it was soon after the war ended …

PS:      It was soon after he war ended yeh …

MS:     Dolly would know that … she worked in the factory …

PS:      Dolly would know that. I remember me father telling me that the owners – or the managers – at he time were people called Fenton’s. Now they were the first people to start the shoe factory. Yes, it’s been going for a long time but unfortunately – fortunately for me – it shut at the right time. But at the time it was good employment for us. It was beside us, we were inside and we were dry, so … it as good employment.

DC:     And it does seem to have been like one big happy family …

PS:      Oh, it was one big happy family. I mean OK there were arguments. You have arguments with neighbours and everyone else. You have people fighting over … I say this and I did say hat … and I didn’t say that. But it was one happy family and we all got together at the dance once a year. I mean it was fabulous … fabulous

DC:     It sounds like a happy experience overall.

PS:      It was a happy experience …

MS:     And we missed he factory when it closed.

DC:     It was good to the town …

PS:      It was good to the town, yes …

MS:     And it brought a lot of friends, those that are still alive, including ourselves …

DC:     And were there ever any reunions or things like that?

MS:     There was one time but it was mostly girls in the office that organised it.

PS:      There was the thing that Liam organised – Liam Mulvany – for the Heritage Festival. Yes, we had a thing for the shoe factory and all the shoe factory members were there and we had some photographs taken of us.

DC:     Liam promised to dig those out and show them …

PS:      Well, I have actually photographs going back to 1930; one particular one of the room we worked in because the room where we worked, you had men down one side and men down the other side and ladies up the top but everything was electric. But in the photo I have of the 1930s everything is belt-driven so you have these big belts coming up to the ceiling and down. And that’s the way it was in those days.

MS:     We have some photographs of the day we were all were closed  … some of the women …

DC:     We might come back to that at some stage, take a copy and put them on the computer …

PS:      But for people who wouldn’t understand what went on in the shoe factory, do you know … we had five rooms in it. We had the clicking room. Now the clicking room was for these fellows who worked with very sharp knives. And they worked with patterns and patterns for the shoes would be made beforehand and they would put the pattern on the leather and cut it and shape it. They would go then to the ladies’ room which was all ladies in it. It was called the closing room. Now those pieces were all put together in leather and sewed together. So this is where your shoe came from. Now it was only a flat piece, no shape, no nothing on it, just the size and then it came to the room where I worked which we called the lasting room. Now the flat piece of the shoe was called an upper; it’s still an upper if you talk to anyone in a shoe factory … part of the shoe. Now that came to our room and that was put on wooden lasts – like a wooden foot

MS:     You can still see them in a shop …

DC:     Yes, I’ve seen them.

PS:      But this was done on sheets. They were put on little trays in dozens and pushed on. And everyone done their little piece and shoved it on to the next guy, so by the time it got to the end of our room you had a shoe with a sole and a heel on it. Maybe a bit grotty, but that’s the way it was, with stuff ticking out of it and all that. It went to the finishing room then. The finishing room was there the shoe was cleaned and buffed up and polished and made ready for the market. And then it was boxed and labelled. And then the press room was where the soles and heels were made. That was one side on its own. … They had their own little piece to add to it … So that was the whole shoe factory, you know.

DC:     Thanks for explaining the whole process. I wouldn’t have been aware of it myself … all the stages in it …

PS:      Well, you know, if you work in a shoe factory you never forget those things. They are always in you head because we used to go into a local man in the town – Jacksie Kiernan – and if you going to buy a pair of shoes the first thing is Jacksie was sitting on the chair and he’d say: “Here’s the sods  coming”. “You can’t sell them this or you cant sell them that or you cant sell them the other”, he says, “because they know about shoes”. And this was Jacksie’s laugh, do you know, Jacksie’s little funny bit because every one we’d pick up we’d examine it in detail and if there was something wrong we didn’t buy it, that was it … because we knew it, do you know. It was our trade… at the time.

MS:     We still do look at them when we’re buying them …

PS:      But when me father was in the shoe factory – he was in the finishing room – and they had machines for shaping the heels … machines with knives on them. But those years … before we were married … when we were young kids … our father, when he nothing to do, he’d make our toys for Christmas. He’d make little Lorries and little vans and he’d shape then on the wheels in the shoe factory then he’d take them home and put them altogether, you know. So … it was a nice place to work. I have no regrets. The only thing I would regret is that it didn’t carry on but then I went to a better job – and a better paid job – until I retired, so …

DC:     A lot of other men did too …

PS:      A lot did …

MS:     Well, it made an awful difference because when we came into the house the rent was 2/2s. And out of Paddy’s wages in the factory would have been … I was sixteen … and I gave up work in 1962. When we came in here the wages were only 8 something; so we were paying 2/2s. out of 8. And I was pregnant so I had to stop work in August for a while – but only for a while and for a while we found it very hard to pay … nowadays people are saying the rents are so high and the mortgages are so high … but when we look back on ours, 2/2 out of eight would be the equivalent of what they are paying in mortgages now. You know, by the time we paid electricity and light fires we had damn all left out of it to live on. The wages weren’t terrific … but it was constant. Everybody enjoyed … the women in the closing room, we had great laughs … it wasn’t just all working.

DC:     Great craic …

MS:     Oh, it was great craic …

DC:     Anything else there that we should know about?

PS:      No, I think I’ve covered it all Danny. I can give you all this stuff [written material] here if you want to use it.

The End