Meet the people giving new life to your favourite cuddly toy

Jonathan deBurca Butler with his son, Fionn, and Ashley Nolan, of the Dolls' Hospital, with Judy, Jonathan's revived teddy bear. Pictures Nick Bradshaw

TWO weeks ago, I found my soulmate, my companion of 30-plus years, Judy, slumped in a corner of a bedroom.

His — yes his, Judy is a boy — throat had been slashed, buttons had been removed from those stretchy, light blue dungarees he loves to wear, and a soft, white fabric oozed from a gaping wound in his right leg. Over the years, Judy has been flung into hedges, had his eyeballs chewed on, and undergone several attempted amputations. In the past, my mother gave Judy post-traumatic succour, but this time was different. Judy needed something more, someone who could give him a new lease of life.

By the time the ambulance arrived, it wasn’t looking good. Emotionally, I was in a heap. Fionn, my 18-month-old, looked at me as if to say ‘hold it together Dad’. He was the real hero. When it looked like Judy had stopped breathing, Fionn had the wherewithal to pick him up, whack him against the door, and drop him on his head. That seemed to revive him.

Thankfully, the Doll’s Hospital wasn’t far away. Although the smell of coffee and food from the cafés in the Powerscourt Townhouse nearly made us forget the seriousness of the situation, we got Judy to the second floor hospital. This infirmary isn’t under the supervision of the HSE and we got seen straight away. Our doctor was Ashley Nolan, who has been with the hospital from an early age.

“My parents opened it 30 years ago, on South Great George’s Street,” she says, while she takes Judy’s pulse. “They ran the place, looked after the repairs [eh…surgery] and built the doll’s houses, so I’ve grown up with it, really. As a child, I would’ve watched Coronation St and sown an eye in a teddy. I did go off and study law, but then came back to the business.”

After her assessment, Ashley takes Judy away for pre-op rest. Myself and Fionn are advised to walk around the hospital, to get over the initial shock. Fionn, who has been a rock throughout, spots a hobby horse and plonks himself on its saddle.

“See-saw, see-saw,” he says, when I ask him about Judy. The poor child was in denial, so I left him with Nick, a photographer, and a Vietnam veteran who happens to be on the scene.

As I struggle to come to terms with Judy’s situation, Ashley tells me about the hospital’s struggle last year, when it was on the verge of closure. “It was just rates and the upward-only lease that did it,” she says. “So, we originally decided they’d just close the business and go online, but, once it leaked out, people were up in arms over it, and Mary Larkin, the manager of the Powerscourt Centre, approached us and said ‘we have a room that’d be perfect for you’. So here we are, in the old ballroom, and it fits in well with the style of the place.”

I spot Bosco, sitting in a cabinet. He looks great, with his flaming red hair and green, striped jacket. I often wondered what had happened between him and co-host, Marian, but now I’m wondering if Judy would ever look as splendid as he did the first day I met him, on my fourth birthday. I recalled my granddad bringing him around the back garden, on the day. It was very sunny.

“That was actually my brother’s,” says Ashley, referring to Bosco. “People would probably pay a bit of money for that now; between a hundred and two hundred, maybe. But we have antique teddies here that could start at about €150 and go up to a couple of thousand.”

In one of the cabinets, and looking a bit gaunt, is a pale-brown teddy bear from 1909.

“This is a Steiff,” says Ashley’s mother, Melissa. “It’s a German bear and that would be the most expensive one here. But the one beside it, that’s an interesting one. It’s by a company called Chad Valley, in the UK. They tried to copy the Steiff trademark, which is a button in the ear, you can see it there. There was a court case, which meant that Chad Valley had to stop producing them with the button. A few of them escaped, however, and here’s one here.”

All of this small talk does nothing to alleviate my fear for Judy.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Ashley and her mum give each other a glance. In an effort to reassure me as to Judy’s welfare, they show me some photos of former patients.

The ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots are quite remarkable. From a head and a rag, these surgeons are able to fashion new life into their patients in a matter of weeks, but it’s not all easy.

Sometimes, it can take months, depending on what materials were used in the original; lambs’ wool can be difficult, for example. But such is the hospital’s reputation that they get patients from as far away as China.

“Here’s a picture of a little tiger that we got from Beijing,” says Melissa. “It’s out the back there, now, drying out, but, as you can see, it was in tatters when it got to us; a dog had got to it. So it arrived in a box here.

“We know we’re well-known, but we didn’t think it would come from that far away. So, we’ve washed it already and it will have to dry naturally and then we’ll have to repair it and stuff it; it should take about a month, but it’s mohair, so it’s tough enough.”

Melissa then shows me a picture of a teddy that’s been rescued from the bottom of the sea.

“It’s called Scubated,” she says. “It was near a wreck and it filled with sand, over time, and stayed down there. A diver found it and brought it up, so we’re in the middle of doing that, too. So she’s opened a Facebook page for it, to follow it on its travels.”

This little chat gives me hope and I feel assured that, though it will be tough, Judy is going to pull through. Of course, I am not the only one who owns a teddy who has seen better days. Indeed, some people own tens, if not hundreds, of the little companions.

“There are people like Mary Kelly, who has over 100 dolls,” says Melissa. “She rescues them. We have a few regular customers, who’d be in their 90s, and they’ve had a lifelong affair with dolls and they’re very happy people. They’re just joyous and they definitely have the secret of happiness.”

I leave Judy in the hospital’s capable hands and, on returning a week later, I am greeted by a new man. Gone is the garish gash from his throat and leg, and the stitches are so well done that there’s no scar tissue on show. The straps and hat are back on straight and, most importantly, so is that big smile.

The prognosis is good for Judy and, based on how well they treat their patients, it is good for the Doll’s Hospital, too.

Watch out, James Reilly.


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