Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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(Irish Daily Mail, 26 February 2011)

By Turtle Bunbury

Maedb assertively chugged her way through the lush Irish countryside. As the green locomotive whistled across the Boyne Viaduct, iron wheels softly screeched against iron brakes. A giant hand swept down through the sky and plucked the engine from the track.

‘Too noisy’, clucked Cyril Fry, inspecting the train’s undercarriage with an eyeglass. The Dubliner was not about to allow a squeaky model into his magic kingdom.

Over the course of over forty years, Cyril Fry and his wife Nancy hand-built what is probably the largest private miniature train collection in the world. Amounting to over 400 beautifully crafted pieces, their extraordinary collection features engines and locomotive from every era of Irish railway history, from the departure of the first train in 1834 to the diesel-guzzling engines of the 1950s. It also includes such unusual models as the Lartigue Monorail which once ran between Listowel and Ballybunion and a short-lived turf-burning locomotive which ran in the 1950s. It also included trains from overseas, in particular the USA, Britain and Switzrland.

For over 30 years, the Fry’s railway empire grew and grew across their Dublin home, occupying first the attic and then expanding into a purpose-built two-storey structure in their garden.

In 1988, as part of Dublin’s Millennium celebrations, the Fry Model Railway was relocated to Malahide Castle in north Dublin. The tiny locomotives which Cyril and Nancy painstakingly designed, cast, built and hand-painted were put on display in close to the courtyard of this historic Norman demesne.

Complimenting the Fry’s railway was a massive and extraordinarily detailed model of Dublin City in miniature, designed by CIE craftsman Tommy Tighe.

Together, these exhibits provided visitors with a complete history of Irish transport since the first train departed from Dublin nearly 180 years ago.

In adjacent premises at the castle stood another unique creation, the Museum of Childhood, dominated by a delectable 22-room dolls house called Tara’s Palace.

Boasting 20 acres of botanical gardens to the rear, Malahide Castle became one of the biggest tourist attractions in North Dublin. Between April and September 2010, over 18,000 curious people went to take a peek at the Model Railway and Tara’s Palace.

However the take at the gate - adults €7, seniors and students €6, children €4 – was apparently insufficient. It was certainly not enough to derail Fingal County Council, who run Malahide Castle on behalf of the Irish State, from their surprise decision to close down both the Fry Model Railway and Tara’s Palace in order to convert the historic castle into an interpretive centre for the botancial garden and an up-market shopping centre.

The proposed dismantling of the Model Railway is due to commence in the first week of March. The news, which only became public knowledge earlier this month, has sent unhappy ripples through the community of Malahide.

Perhaps more significantly it has mobilized Ireland’s sizeable and very passionate trainspotting population to take a stance.

On Wednesday 23rd February, over 130 ‘Friends of the Fry Railway Museum’ gathered at Malahide Castle to protest against the plans.

Amongst their growing number of supporters is Booker Prize winning novelist Roddy Doyle whose mother Ita once worked as a secretary for Cyril Fry.

‘I love Cyril’s railway’, says Doyle. ‘I don’t know how many times I have brought my children, and other people’s children, and visitors from abroad to see it. They were always, always enthralled. It’s a magic place and the decision to shut it doesn’t seem to make any sense.’
The ‘Friends of the Fry’ campaign gained nationwide attention last week when Cyril and Nancy Fry’s daughter Patricia Dillon appeared on Joe Duffy’s Liveline. She explained that the model railway was her father’s lifelong obsession.

Born in 1905, Cyril was the only child of Sydney Fry, manager of the London and Lancashire Insurance Company office on D’Olier Street, Dublin. Sydney was a co-founder of the Milltown Golf Club and also represented Ireland as a tennis player in the Davis Cup. In 1904, he married Lancashire born-wife Emilie Mabel and their firstborn son Cyril was born the following year.
Cyril was an only child until 1915 when his younger brother Bill (the acclaimed organist Edward Sampson Fry) was born. The seeds of his obsession with railways were almost certainly planted during those early years, perhaps when he watched the engines chugging down the Dublin and South Eastern Railway line which ran directly behind their house at Herbert Hill in Dundrum.

In 1923, Cyril Fry began training as a railway engineer at Broadstone, Dublin. Over the next twenty years, he was based at the Inchicore Works in Dublin where he served as a Senior Mechanical Engineer and draughtsman on the Great Southern Railway (which became CIE).
During this time there were some twenty-three railway companies operating in Ireland and the country consequently enjoyed one of the most comprehensive networks in Europe.

This intricate system ensured the people of Ireland had relatively easy railway access deep into places as remote as County Donegal, the Ring of Kerry, West Clare, Connemara and the Giant’s Causeway.

Working with original plans and drawings from these companies, Cyril Fry began to design his own fleet of locomotives, ensuring absolute precision with each model down to every last rivet.

To make every single wheel, chimney, door, rivet or even lamppost for their mini-kingdom, the Frys filled an iron box with sand, made a mold of the desired piece and filled the mold with hot metal. Once the model had cooled, they filed it into shape with a lathe and then painted it with a brush so fine that Cyril was able to put his name and the date of construction on each model.

Broad gauge, narrow gauge, tramway, he rebuilt the lot, starting with ‘Hibernia’, the country’s first locomotive, which made its debut journey from Dublin to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) in 1834, only to explode eight years later.

In 1935 he married Nancy McMullan, an auctioneer’s daughter from Dublin, with whom he had a daughter, Patricia. They settled in a bungalow in Churchtown where Cyril converted the attic into premises fit for his railway empire. He taught Nancy how to cast and paint engines, and together they began landscaping a miniature plasterwork world of fields, tunnels, streets and rivers through which their trains would journey.

It was not just trains that the Frys excelled at. With his nimble fingers, Cyril created a perfect miniature of a single-decker Leyland Tiger coach, complete with scale Dunlop tyres, while Nancy affixed the correct fabric to the upholstery and painted the exterior in the ivory and black colours of the Great Southern Railways.

The Fry’s Leyland Tiger masterpiece was exhibited in the Irish Pavilion at the New York World Fair in 1939, shortly before the death of Cyril’s father. It is now on display at the Brighton Toy and Model Museum in Sussex.

For Patricia Dillon, the railway kingdom running through her house was a perfectly normal business. ‘It was always there so it never really struck me as unusual’, she laughs fondly. ‘Trains aren’t really a girl’s thing but they were of course a big part of my life. Whenever my father launched a new model, there was great excitement in the household.’

In about 1950, the Fry’s designed a purpose-built extension to their home, enabling the railway to expand out from the bungalow attic into another space, measuring 50 x 30. While the trains chugged noiselessly about upstairs, Cyril and Nancy toile away in the new workshop below.

With the gradual closure of the Irish railways during the 1940s, Fry began to develop his collection with even more vigour. Camping was a big part of family life for the Frys and Patrica recalls how her father would often leave her and her mother to enjoy a picnic, while he located the ghost of a newly-abandoned railway line and mentally prepare his designs.

‘He was appalled to see the end of the railway era’, explains Patricia. ‘He stayed on at half salary but that didn’t work so he upped and left and joined Jacob’s’.

By the close of the 1950s, the Dublin engineer had created probably the greatest private collection of miniature railway engines, wagons and carriages in existence. It operated in a two storey building in his garden which was open for view, but only if you passed a certain test.

‘We were inundated with people wanting to visit’, recalls Mrs. Dillon. ‘Casual visitors were not tolerated and children were not allowed. First timers were told to ring back in three months. Then you had to call a second time. And if you called three times, he accepted you as genuine and allowed you in. But they were all taken aback when they did see it. It was an absolute fairyland.’

‘They were given a two and a half hour tour and then my mum gave them all tea, biscuits and sandwiches. There was no entrance fee. It was purely a hobby, albeit a fanatical hobby. But the visitor books are signed by people who came from all over the world - New York, Sweden, Germany and places – and its amazing how many were high up in engineering and construction. They recognized the detail and the genius of what he had created.’

Towards the end of his life, Cyril Fry became anxious that his models should cease running around a railway track.

‘He didn’t want his trains to run again because he wanted them to be kept for posterity’, explains Mrs Dillon. ‘A lot of time and expense went into the maintenance and he didn’t want the engines and wheels to wear out’.

Shortly after Cyril’s death in 1972, Matt McNulty of Dublin Tourism went to visit the Fry’s railway kingdom. Much impressed by this ‘highly important and complete’ collection, he persuaded the Irish State to purchase the collection from Nancy in 1976.

The models were transferred to a series of purpose-built glass boxes and moved to Malahide Castle. Tommy Tighe, a CIE craftsman, simultaneously oversaw the creation of a gigantic miniature model of Dublin to rival that which had formally run around the Fry’s Churchtown home.

Built in Inchicore, the model covered a massive 2,500 square feet and, located in a purpose-built structure at the castle, is one of the largest miniature railway systems in the world.

The main line of Tighe’s ‘Grand Transport Complex’ runs from Belfast through Dublin to Cork. The model includes many instantly familiar Dublin landmarks. Heuston Station and the Ha’penny Bridge are both formed in miniature. So too are the Guinness barges floating on the River Liffey, the old Dublin buses crossing O’Connell Bridge, the mail boat departing from Dun Laoghaire.

The complex just about kept abreast of modern developments, so that alongside the grand old trains and monorails of old, one can see the familiar orange streak of the CIE railway carriages pulling out of Heusten Station, the pale green flight of the DART headed around Dublin Bay towards the Hill of Howth and even the silver bullet of a LUAS past a row of Georgian townhouses.

The Fry Model Railway Museum and its collection of over 300 handmade models opened to the public in July 1988. Over the ensuing 23 years it has delighted Dubliners, tourists and train-spotters alike. In 2008, Frommer’s Dublin Day-by-Day variously described the railway model as ‘utterly charming’ and a ‘unique and delightful collection’. ‘The only thing that seems to be missing is dried up sandwiches in the buffet bar’, marveled another guide book.

While the Fry’s collection were encased in glass to one side of the building, Mr. Tighe’s works were the focal point. A narrator’s voice brought the past to life as one strolled Gulliver-like around Dublin.

However, both the Fry Model Railway and Tara’s Palace are now being evicted from Malahide Castle as part of a massive €10.5 overhaul of the steely grey castle and its impressive gardens which is being jointly funded by Fingal County Council and Failte Ireland.

A spokeswoman for Fingal County Council explains that the redevelopment is designed to open up the Talbot Botanic Gardens, a 20-acre wonderland of rare trees and shrubs planted between 1948 and 1973 by the 7th and last Baron Malahide.

The project report states that ‘it is not possible to deliver the necessary improvements to visitor services and maintain an attraction on site that is of the scale of the Fry Model Railway’ and thereby requests the railway be dismantled. Tara’s Palace is also to be ousted.

Dublin Tourism run both visitor attractions on behalf of Fingal County Council. However, when the project was green-lighted in September 2010, they were informed that they would be relieved of these duties.

A communication breakdown ensured as both the council and Dublin Tourism failed to make it public knowledge that the Fry Model Railway Museum and Tara’s Palace were to be sacrificed for this new project.

Model railway enthusiasts and Malahide businessmen alike are now appealing to Fingal County Council to allow the railway to remain.

‘The railway has not yet been dismantled’, says John Hamill, chairman of the Model Railway Society of Ireland and the convenor of the Friends of the Fry Model Railway group. ‘To take it apart would be a monumental job in itself, particularly with regard to all the intricate electrical wiring. We are hopeful that Fingal County Council might at least give the museum a stay of execution until the end of September’.

Al Ryan, President of the Malahide Chamber of Commerce, says he is ‘very disappointed’ by the decision to close the two museums. ‘We always understood they were going to be retained in the redeveloped site but it seems the council don’t have any interest in retaining either collection. We are now unsure what Fingal County Council’s commercial intentions are towards the castle. We think it would be a great loss to Malahide Castle, and to Malahide as a whole, to lose these two great works of Irish heritage. To dismantle them would be a tragedy’.

In the meantime, Dublin Tourism has put the Fry Model Railway collection up for sale with a loose promise that it will not be broken up and that it will stay within the state.

If it has to be moved, then Hamil believes the National Museum at Collins Barracks would have the space. The Harbour Master of Dun Laoghaire has proposed the departure lounge at the ferry terminal. Fianna Fail Deputy Michael Mulcahy makes an interesting case to have it re-housed in Inchicore, the ‘natural home’ for Irish railway. Others have suggested the Custom House, which lies at the heart of Dublin’s original docklands railway hub.

'I am so proud of my father, his patience, his genius and what he and my mother achieved', says Patricia. The model railway meant everything to them. If they put it into storage, it will never see the light of day again’.

This monument to the history of Irish public transport is due to open one last time but the date for that is as yet not known.


Buried in Kiltiernan. In Every Loving | and Happy Memory | of | SYDNEY LAWRENCE FRY | of Herbert Hill, Dundrum | who fell asleep on St. Stephen’s Day 1925 (?) | Thy Will be Done| also his dearly loved wife | EMILIE MABEL FRY | who died on their wedding anniversary | June 2nd 1940(?). Note: The dates on this Headstone are almost illegible.

At the time of the 1911 census, Sydney and Emilie Fry's small Church of Ireland household lived at 17 Newtown Little, Rathfarnham, along with 19 year old Emily Susan Dillon, a Plymouth Brethren from Duncannon, Co. Waterford, who worked as a General Servant in the household.

Many of the 1980s models were hand-built by Mr. Tighe, including three aluminum Dublin double deckers (or Van Hool Atlanteans, to be precise). Some were generic die-cast coaches, repainted by Des McGlynn. The generic coaches include the Corgi Plaxton Paramount, and the JOAL 1:50 scale coach.

With thanks to Patricia Dillon, Tommy Tighe, Ann Murphy, James Hamil, Al Ryan, Roddy Doyle, Andrew Bunbury, the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland and Leslie Anne Horgan.