The stories from the dolls' hospital can leave you in tears. Anna Coogan meets owner Ashley at the lavish new HQ at the Powerscourt Centre
'Dogs and brothers are the worst for damaging dolls and teddy bears," says Ashley Nolan, owner of The Dolls' Hospital and Teddy Bear Clinic in the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre.
She's holding an antiquated teddy bear whose yellow eyes are popping out of its sockets, and who looks in need of some serious TLC.
"The owner had him as a child, and her grandson was playing with it when the dog tried to eat it. We'll put the eyes back in," she says.
It's only an old teddy, yet in The Dolls' Hospital it takes on a wistful and nostalgic air.
Indeed, behind every toy's pretty facade it seems there's a piercingly poignant story waiting to be told.
Ashley (30) recently took over the dolls' shop and hospital from her parents Melissa and Chris, who ran it on South Great George's Street from 1984.
"We've all cried over the years. There was a man from the Channel Islands whose daughter had a serious heart condition and was going in for yet another major operation," recalls Ashley. "She was very attached to a bunny which was on its last legs. While she was having surgery, he got on a plane and flew over to us and we mended the bunny. He presented it to his daughter saying the bunny had had an operation, too, to make him better again."
There is another tale which Ashley tells that goes straight to the heart.
"A twin brought in a doll on which her sister had coloured in measles in a red pen. It turned out the sister had died, and the red spots were fading with time, and her sister couldn't bear to let the doll change in any way, as it was the thing which most reminded her of their happy childhood. We found a way to keep the red dots."
You can pass a tissue, or visit The Dolls' Hospital.
Ashley oversaw the recent move of the hospital to the original ballroom of the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre off Grafton Street.
It's where the house's original owner, Lady Amelia Wingfield, entertained guests during Parliament season in the 18th century. Jump up and down and you'll feel the spring in the floor, put there purposefully to encourage elegantly dressed party goers to dance the minuet.
The blue-and-white ornate ceiling of the ballroom is in a neo-classical style, a bit like fancy cake decoration. Add the dark wood cabinets filled with antique dolls and the over-sized teddy bears, and you're transported back in time.
THE DOLLS' HOSPITAL LEFT ITS GEORGE'S STREET LOCATION DUE TO WHAT ITS OWNERS FELT WERE EXORBITANT RATES AND INSURANCE COSTS. "THE OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT WAS AMAZING. WE HAD PEOPLE AS FAR AWAY AS CORK AND LIMERICK GETTING IN TOUCH TO OFFER US PREMISES," SAYS ASHLEY.
"It was sad for us to leave as a family as, although we lived in Rathfarnham, my parents kept living quarters above the shop as they'd be up to three or four in the morning during busy times. Mum is a dollmaker as well as doing repairs, and dad built the dolls' houses.
"I went to school in town and at night I'd sit upstairs with mum sewing teddies' eyes in while watching Coronation Street. It seemed the natural thing to take over when mum and dad decided to retire."
Ashley returned from Chicago earlier this year, where she had been working as a paralegal in a law firm. She studied business and legal studies in DIT on Aungier Street. Her brother Emmet is a barrister. She didn't hesitate when it was put to her that she return home and take over the helm of the hospital.
It was Freda and Tommy Noyek who opened the original dolls' hospital in 1938 on Mary Street on the northside.
They created the impression of an authentic hospital, with dolls in beds and staff wearing nurses' uniforms.
Dolls have become more mass produced and lacking in spare parts, yet there is still a big demand for the repair of antique dolls.
Ashley says: "When Powerscourt Townhouse was put to us as a possible new location, we all felt it would be like bringing dolls' houses to a giant dolls' house. It felt perfect. And now we have extra space, I'd like to recreate a hospital environment for the dolls and teddies, with little beds for them."
Current patients at the hospital include a miniature Minnie Mouse who is having a fashion crisis and is in need of a new pink outfit. Her owner, a woman in her 20s, can't bear to see her looking shabby.
"We were contacted by a girl in Wales who had recently split up from her boyfriend. In a fit of rage, he'd taken a pair of scissors and cut up her teddy bear, who she called 'Cheeky' for his smile. Maybe the boyfriend had seen the bear as a rival for her affections.
"It was a big job getting him back together but she was delighted," Ashley says.
This traditional business has kept up with the times, and in 2007 expanded into an online business (www.dollstore.ie).
Ashley's mum, Melissa, is a collector of vintage dolls, and the oldest doll on display is a wooden peg doll dating from 1840. A teddy bear called Edward dates back to 1904, and a Mickey Mouse figure dates back to 1911.
This much-loved Dublin institution appears to have found the perfect new home.
"My plan is to keep the business going for as long as mum and dad did," says Ashley.