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Irish Times Magazine Saturday 29th March 2008

Hobby Horse: Model Railways

Pardon me, boys …

Boys who collect model trains – for it is mostly boys of all ages – have a passion for detail

With a little imagination, the half a dozen or so old men in the faded photograph could almost pass for grizzled prospectors in America’s Old West. They’re unarmed, of course and some of them are wearing cardigans. But as they gaze across the barren site on which they are about to break ground, they have the air of visionaries.

These men may have been insurance brokers, engineers and administrators by profession, but their vision for this windswept sliver of land overlooking the M50 was to build a two-storey corrugated iron clubhouse. After 25 years in the wilderness, the South Dublin Model Club finally had a place to call home.

For club member John Hayes, model railways have been a lifelong obsession. He shows me round the freezing clubhouse and talks me through the layouts. (“We just got the central heating in” he says. “It used to be bloody Baltic in here”). His favourite layout is a painstakingly recreated model of Belturbet station in Co. Cavan, which closed for business in 1959.

“That building is still in existence,” he says, pointing to an old storehouse. “We went down and crawled all over it to get the exact measurements. We used a bit of poetic licence though. Those cottages aren’t quite as close and that forecourt is a little bit bigger. But for the most part it is extremely accurate”.

Like most enthusiasts, Hayes has an abiding interest in one particular era of rail history. In his case it is the era of Irish steam travel.

As a child, he remembers seeing steam engines chugging across the old bridge at Dundrum on their way into Harcourt Street Station. It was the speed and the tremendous noise of the locomotives that fired his imagination. But he soon came to appreciate the craft that went into running them.

“Steam engine drivers only got one Sunday a month off work” he remembers. “But if they lived near the railway yard they’d still go in with the oil can and maybe get out the old cloth and give it a shine. You don’t get the fellows on the diesel engines doing that”.

As his interest in railways developed into his teens, he was introduced to Cyril Fry, whose vast model train collection is now housed in the Fry Model Railway Museum in Malahide Castle. It was this meeting that inspired his first foray into model railway collecting. He remains unashamedly nostalgic for the railways of his youth. “One of the things that I’m very sad about for young lads taking an interest in railways is that the old engine sheds, the water towers and signal boxes are all fast disappearing now”.

But surely this is the natural order of things? The old must give way to the new “lest one good custom should corrupt the world”. Why should it be necessary to preserve an obsolete mode of transportation?

“We’re not just playing trains here” he replies. “To get the enjoyment out of this you’ve got to operate the layouts like the real railway”. He says he wouldn’t run a CIE train through Belturbet, for example, because CIE trains never ran through there. The station was operated by the Great Northern Railway. He denies taking his hobby too seriously, though. “Some fellas would pick up an engine and say ‘Hold on, that’s not right. There should be half a dozen rivets on the side of that tender’. We call them the purists and they have their place. But we’re more relaxed than that”.

The golden era of Irish railways holds an endless fascination for Hayes. “We had dozens of companies operating in this country and no two of them were the same. That’s why I have no interest in British or continental railways. I’d love to, but I just don’t have the time. There’s so much to learn and at my age, I’m losing rather than gaining knowledge.


Words: Eoin Butler