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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 July 2007, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Beloved toys - a century of magic
By Nuala McCann
BBC News Website

On a winter's day in 2005, a stranger stepped into an arts centre for children in Temple Bar, Dublin, and wove a little magic.

He told a story about an Aladdin's Cave of toys in a secret location in Ireland. These toys would delight children from eight to 80, he promised.

There were, he thought, about 10,000 toys in all, but in fact, there were nearly 20,000.

An exhibition of a century of toys goes on display in Dublin.

There were train sets guaranteed to remind an old man of happy childhood days, switching points and moving signals.

There were proud French porcelain dolls worth a pretty French franc in their day and worth a whole hoard of euros too.

And there were well-loved plastic dolls with haircuts courtesy of budding Vidal Sassoons who gave up on their hairdressing ambitions at the age of 10 and got on with other futures.

Nevertheless each doll was worth a fine fortune, if only in her young owner's eyes.

There were thousands of Barbies, some approaching their 50th birthdays, but all managing in miraculous fashion to keep their figures.

And there was an amazing collection of clockwork toys from the early 1900s, as well as a Star Wars collection and, oh yes, there might just be every single soft toy produced by a certain fast food company over the last 20 years.

Little girl sewing
One of the toys which features in the exhibition

The stranger enchanted the people at The Ark. He introduced them to the women who collected the toys.

Her name is Dorothy Hanley. A selection of her toys are going on display at The Ark - A Cultural Centre for Children in Dublin - this summer.

Mrs Hanley is now in her 80s, but her passion for toys has never waned.

She shuns publicity but Roise Goan, the exhibition curator from The Ark, paints a picture of a kind, gentle woman with a great sense of humour, very sprightly and with a love for all toys - the used ones as much as the antique variety which have never felt the loving touch of a child's hands.

"We spent three solid days going through toys upon toys, it is a whole history of the 20th century in toys," Roise said.

"Mrs Hanley never collected with an exhibition in mind. Some of the toys are real collectors' items. What we are showing is the tip of the iceberg. Whilst some are very valuable, some are worth pennies."

Maybe it was that childhood memory of a beautiful doll that was lost which sparked this desire to save and love toys
Roise Goan

Visitors to the exhibition will discover a miniature Irish fisherman's cottage complete with a tiny tub of Nivea cream, the size of half your small fingernail, in the bathroom.

In a section called Mrs Hanley's Favourites, children will be delighted by a Bebe Jumeau - a very valuable French doll dating from the 1870s, in a fine couture dress.

In the 50s and 60s section, there is a collector's model of Marilyn Monroe, alongside Basil Brush, Captain Scarlet, the Thunderbirds and the Clangers.

There are a whole series of mechanial toys just waiting to be wound up as well as trains, planes, automobiles and a crane.

It is a collection that was 70 years in the making.

"Perhaps Mrs Hanley's love of toys was sparked by a porcelain doll she had as a child which was very precious to her," Roise said.

"Once, when she was out, her mother gave the doll to a small child who was visiting and when she returned, she found her doll in smithereens on the floor.

"Maybe it was that childhood memory of a beautiful doll that was lost which sparked this desire to save and love toys."

Ark director Eina McHugh is delighted to be given such a treasure trove - the largest collection of toys in Ireland.

"Above all, Mrs Hanley has the true spirit of generosity. She offered us this amazing collection to exhibit for free. This is a project for all generations, from grandparents to grandchildren."

The exhibition runs at The Ark, 11a Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin, from 5 July to 18 August. For more details, telephone 00 353 1 6707788. On 17 August, at a special Zeppfest, the sky above the Ark will be filled with fantastical flying machines and Zeppelins made by the children in an event supported by Dublin Airport Authority.

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