Bernard O'Shea: Why I love the pair of leather boots that scalped my heels to the bone

Bernard O'Shea says his Grenson boots had him limping for weeks but now he refuses to buy any other pair of shoes
Bernard O'Shea: Why I love the pair of leather boots that scalped my heels to the bone

With fast fashion under the societal and environmental microscope sustainable clothing is fast becoming the new trend. Just type  “sustainable'  into Google and you’ll find 'clothing brands' is one of the most searched items accompanying it.

It’s not the most scientific research I’ll grant you. But anyone with an interest in digital marketing will tell you that’s it’s a sure sign that shoppers are starting to look for it more and more online. But what about shoes? Are we as conscious of shopping for sustainable shoes?

Four years ago I decided out of handiness and for no other reason to buy a pair of leather-soled boots. My purchase wasn’t driven by an environmental or sustainable ethos. I was annoyed by having to buy at least three to four pairs of shoes every year. I don’t mind shopping. I would go as far as to say that I’m obsessed with grocery shopping and food retail in general but I hate shoe shopping. Why? Because you have to try them on.

When I was little I remember going shopping with my mother and three older sisters. I’d have to wait while they tried on what felt like practically every piece of clothing in Ireland. When it would come to my turn to try on a pair of “slacks” (I've only ever heard trousers been called “slacks” in Ireland and America) I would wander off to try them on. My Mother or Granny would shout “Where are you going, Bernard ?” To which I'd say “I’m going to try them on… in the changing rooms.” Then without any consultation, their reply would come quick and fast “No you're not. Sure try them on here… NO ONE IS LOOKING AT YOU.”

From tiny seeds grow awkward giant oaks and to this day I abhor clothes and shoe shopping and have a special place in the dark chambers of my heart for changing rooms. Especially changing rooms that have half-doors or are barrels, spaceships or anything apart from a lead-lined room at least five miles away from anyone asking me “are they ok would like to see another size?” I know there is a joy to shopping and trying on new clothes but I’ve never understood why every changing room in this country does not have enough hooks to hang the clothes you want to try on.

Sure they will ask you “how many items?” and even give you a plastic number card to make sure you don’t head out the door with contraband but ask them to throw a few more hooks on the door so you don't have to smush your own filthy rags into the ground and all of sudden your a mad man!

I wear out shoes at an alarming rate. However just the soles. The uppers are always fine but no matter what brand I buy I melt through the soles. It's like watching a waiter grate Parmesan over pasta in a busy restaurant. You look at the giant piece of cheese and think 'that will last years.' It won’t.

Grenson Boots
Grenson Boots

So I decided to buy a pair of Grenson boots. I remember my father buying the same brand when I was small. He would polish them every Saturday morning and bring them to the cobbler in Kilkenny once or twice a year to get them re-soled. He would constantly wreck my and my sister's heads over how ramshackle our shoes looked. When my sisters started wearing Doc Martins he would polish them to a parade finish only for them to freak out the next day. Docs were cool but clean shiny Docs weren’t.

The outlay for the Grenson boots was steep. But there was a steeper lesson ahead. I learned the hard way about how you have to 'break them in'.

Leather-soled or tripled welted soles are very stiff at the start. For leather soles, you have to scuff them for a few weeks so the sole can get grippy and take on polish to waterproof the surface. Leather is a natural product so it will absorb moisture and will crack if you don’t maintain them with polish.

The first day I got them I was performing for Deirdre O’Kane's Red Nose Day in the 3 Arena. I decided to break them in by walking to the venue from my home in Castleknock where I live. It's nearly seven miles. By the time I got there my feet, especially my heels, were in agony. But it being St. Patrick's Day I decided to have a few drinks. A few drinks led to a few more and before I knew it I was walking along the quays trying to get a taxi in the middle of a random snowstorm.

Long story short I had to walk home. Fourteen miles and eight hours later I was awoken to the pleasant screams of my wife “BERNARD WHERES ALL THE BLOOD COMING FROM ?” Drunkenly I took off my boots and my heels were scalped to the bone. I couldn’t walk properly for weeks.

Eventually, after a few months (yes, it took that long) I wore them in. My sole moulded into them almost like paw prints on wet cement. They are four years later unbelievably comfortable, warm and more importantly waterproof.

One caveat leather soles are slippy. So I took them to the cobbler in the village and he lined them with a composite sole and heel. I bring them to him two or times a year and depending on what he needs to do to them it's never more than €30. When you think I would normally spend €300 a year on shoes, that’s not a bad return for me or the environment.

Remember shoes, just like other rubbers and plastics, can last up to fifty years in a landfill. The only thing I don’t like about them is how long it takes to tie them up, especially when you're in a hurry. Even though they practically crippled me for a few weeks, once I polish them every so often and bring them to the cobbler I should be 'well-heeled' for another few years.

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