Early Medieval Irish Shoe 6

I have been holding this post to co-incide with the Experimental Archaeology conference EAC 10 which is currently underway in Leiden. Most of the replicas I make are essentially experimental in nature rather than experimental. The objective is usually to explore and become familiar with the process of constructing a replica of an original complete artefact. In the case of this particular shoe from Drumclay Crannog, the approach is more experimental as some key elements of the original are missing and the reconstruction is necessarily hypothetical.


The excavations at Drumclay Crannog, near Enniskillen in County Fermanagh yielded an amazing array of early medieval artefacts, some familiar and some very unfamiliar. The leather finds were no exception. It made for an exciting assemblage to work on. Of course, there were the usual suspects, easily identified and familiar, as if to lure one into a sense of complacency which was then regularly shattered by the unfamiliar. When one of those popped out of the finds bag it was a case of being very well and truly off-piste. No familiar seams or markers, instead a small pile of unfamiliar cuts and pieces. In other words, a puzzle.

As with all puzzles, a good place to start is to lay out the pieces and see if any pattern emerges. In this case there were about twenty bits in all came out of the bag, but three in particular stood out due to the wavy pattern along the edges which was not repeated on any of the other pieces. I must admit I had not come across anything like this before and began to shuffle the parts to try and make sense of them. The bogey part was the roughly triangular piece – it just did not want to fit. Then the lightbulb moment – could it be a shoe? And then everything made sense. The parts matched up to form the probable remnants of a one-piece shoe, with a pointed-V extension at the heel. Could I find any parallels??


That was not an easy question to answer. And that is the fun of the unknown, the process of finding the answer. The pointed-V extension suggested looking East as it certainly did not belong in the Lucas classification of Early Irish Footwear. The Type 2 has a hint of a V-extension at the heel and the serrated, wavy seam on the vamp, but there the resemblance ends. A close examination of Margrethe Hald’s Primitive Shoes and Marquita Volken’s Archaeological Footwear followed.

Firstly, I matched the two large parts together, drew an accurate sketch and began the search. Unlike the illustrations in Hald and Volken, the Drumclay shoe V-back extended the full height of the heel and quarters. Hald had several near matches but one in particular was very close in the side profile of the upper vamp and quarters. The shoe in question was from the Elisenhof settlement and the toe section was almost intact. I decided to adopt this toe pattern for the reconstruction as can be seen in the two photographs below.


Construction was straightforward. I began by stitching up the heel of the shoe. To achieve the wavy edge pattern I used a single length of artificial sinew and a straight awl to pierce the stitch holes. I replicated the edge/flesh stitch holes along the sides of the V and grain/flesh at the quarters. Then I stitched the toe section using edge/flesh stitches. With the toe and heel assembled, the shoe began to take shape as I stitched the butt seam along the centre of the vamp. As the seam closed and the two edges came together it was possible to stitch the tongue in place to complete the shoe.




When complete, the shoe tapers to a narrow square toe.  There are only two holes on the left quarters for a lacing thong which may have wrapped over the tongue and around the ankle to secure the shoe to the foot. It would make for a comfortable size 6 for a woman or size 4 for a man. Needless to say, further research is on-going.



Hald M. 1972 Primitive Shoes: An Archaeological-Ethnological Study based upon Shoe Finds from the Jutland Peninsula. The National Museum of Denmark. Copenhagen.

Volken, M. 2014 Archaeological Footwear: Development of shoe patterns and styles from Prehistory till the 1600’s. SPA Uitgevers.




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6 thoughts on “Early Medieval Irish Shoe

  • Oleg

    Good job, John. Nice wavy lines produced by a single thread seam.
    Thank you for posting – I’m very happy to have access to the interim results on your blog.

  • Declan Kenny

    To the uninitiated (i.e.me) this doesn’t seem like as elegant a solution as the turn-shoe. Almost as if a beginner leather-worker was trying to make a one-piece shoe all those hundreds of years ago, and came up with this idea for a while, and then found a better pattern and discarded this early ‘primer’. Indeed, as a solution to the one-piece puzzle, it sort of cheats a bit too, with a separate vamp. How does it feel to wear in comparison to the turn-shoe?

      • John Nicholl Post author

        The shoe depicted on Wright’s portrait of Sir Neil O’Neill is similar to the shoes worn by Lord Mungo Murray in a portrait, also by Wright. Both have decorative flaps on the instep and heel and a pattern of punched holes on the vamp. However, Murray’s is very fashionably closed with small buckles, introduced c.1660, while O’Neills lacks the buckle and straps and is a simpler slip-on style. Both clearly show an upper with separate vamp and quarters (Murray) or backpart (O’Neill) as well as a separate sole but no heel and are variations on 17th century Irish and Scottish footwear.

  • John Nicholl Post author

    Elegant or otherwise, it was a very well worn shoe turn-shoe. It was sewn inside out and then turned. The sole was completely worn through before being discarded. Both the pattern and method are consistent with other one-piece turn-shoes from this period. The really interesting detail is the extended V at the heel. The insert is a pragmatic solution to closing the instep and making the shoe more comfortable. Probably as a result of making the shoe from an insufficiently large piece of leather to begin with. As regards testing it for comfort, I made it as a 1:1 reconstruction and it’s several sizes too small for me. Another very interesting detail is what appears to be the impression of teeth on the corner of the insert, as if the maker had been biting on it at some stage. More to come on this.