Did the Irish wear shoes?

Wearing of shoes – Many historic drawings and more recently photographs show the Irish had a preference to go barefoot. Yet, the most common archaeological artefacts to be found in Ireland are shoes.* So why did the Irish not like wearing shoes?

Ireland has a mild temperate climate, swathe in the warm Atlantic mists thus the ground underfoot is damp for most days of the year. Throughout history and until very recently shoes were made of leather and leather soled shoes are prone to soaking in water. Feet which are constantly wet are prone to developing “Immersion Foot Syndrome” better known since WWI as “Trench Foot” when it was a major problem. Even today Trench Foot remains a problem and even during WWII, in December 1944 the US Army records show that there were 37,336 injuries due to battle and 11,469 due to Trench Foot and frost bite.

In anthropology the term “adaptation” refers to patterns of behaviour which enable a culture to cope with its surroundings. Here we see a good example of “adaptation” where enclosing feet in shoes would have been detrimental to one’s health. The abundance of shoes in the archaeological record demonstrates that shoes were worn during the winter and whenever needed. Ironically leather goods in Ireland survive mostly in a waterlogged environment.

Image: Irish warriors c. 1540. An anonymous woodcut of Irish warriors, all barefoot. Thus we can conclude that the Irish Army had known all about Trench Foot for at least 374 years before modern science and modern armies!

‘DRAVN AFTER THE QVICKE’ (means drawn from life). Quick originally meant “living persons” from the Old English word cwic. It was frequently paired with the dead, e.g. cwicum & deadum. (The quick and the dead!)

Warning distressing photograph of feet afflicted with Trench Foot.

Us Army diagram on the causes of Trench Foot.

*The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland – Nancy Edwards p.79

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