Dundalk, Ireland’s Shoe Capital

Near the Irish Republic’s frontier with Northern Ireland lies the pretty but unassuming town of Dundalk. This seaside town has not loomed large in the histories of either Ireland or the wider British Isles of a whole, but it is noteworthy in one respect: it was Ireland’s shoe capital.

 

Shoemaking in Ireland has a long pedigree. At one point in time almost every town in Ireland had its boot- and shoe-makers providing (usually handmade) footwear. But this trade was local in nature and the footwear produced by these local concerns rarely made it further from the place of manufacture than the immediate countryside surrounding the town. But the 1930s represented the pinnacle of Irish shoemaking, as UK companies set up factories on the Emerald Isle to get around the Irish tariff barriers on imports, caused by protectionist policies enacted by the newly-independent Irish Free State.

In the early 1930s the British shoe company Hallidays arrived in Dundalk. The firm had a long history of shoemaking in England, but most of its British-manufactured farm boots were sold in Ireland. In 1931 the company moved its manufacturing presence from Bramley, Yorkshire to Ireland, coaxed onto Irish soil by the Irish Free State’s heavy duties on imported items. Manufacturing their farm boots within the boundaries of the Irish Free State enabled the company to avoid these duties and continue to sell boots to its main market, the sturdy farmers of Ireland.

By 1936 Bramley-born Yorkshireman Arthur Halliday was at the family company’s helm and the business flourished, due in no small part to Arthur’s decision to manufacture Clark’s ladies shoes under license. Materials shortages caused by the Second World War did little to slow the company’s growth, turning Dundalk into Ireland’s shoemaking capital by the War’s end. By the early 1970s the company employed 1250 people and in 1971 Clarks acquired the company itself. As his association with the Clark brand grew, Arthur joined their board of managers, eventually returning to England to live.

But the town was not immune to outside forces, and the heyday did not last long. Irish membership of the European Union (then known as the European Economic Community) in 1973 forced an abandonment of the import restrictions that had brought Hallidays and other UK shoe manufacturers to Dundalk in the first place, and a newly-available pool of cheap labour in the Far East caused many manufacturers to outsource their operations overseas. In 1985, the Dundalk Clarks factory shut down, with the loss of 370 jobs, itself a sharp decline from the 1250 employed in the town just 14 years earlier.

But the town still remembers its shoe history and the memories of those older people who once worked in Dundalk’s shoemaking industry keep its spirit, at least, alive.