Hello Dolly

With more than 420 dolls in her collection (and more on the way), Co Meath pensioner Mary Hickey loves her charges so much she checks on them ‘100 times a day’

Mary Hickey and her doll collection at her home in Ashbourne Co Meath. Photograph: Marc O’Sullivan

Mary Hickey and her doll collection at her home in Ashbourne Co Meath. Photograph: Marc O’Sullivan

Tue, Oct 1, 2013, 18:02

The day I arrive in Ashbourne, Co Meath, to interview Mary Hickey (93), her doll collection is about to increase from 420 to 422. A friend is due to visit that evening bringing with her two dolls. People bring dolls as gifts to Mrs Hickey in the way others might bring flowers to a guest. She has been collecting them for more than 30 years.

“I know I was collecting them before Jack [her late husband] died, because when the priest came to visit, he’d say, ‘come on Jack, we’ll go into the room with the dolls’.”

There are quite a few collections in Mary’s home. There are the many brightly-coloured plastic pot plants on the sideboard in the hall. There are hundreds of birds in china and resin, in all sizes. There are religious statues.

Mostly, though, there are dolls. They fill one entire double bedroom as well as a sittingroom, and the favourites are in her bedroom. “Those ones came from the dolls’ hospital when they closed, which means they were rather expensive.”

The majority are very simple dolls. There are, for instance, no porcelain ones or collectors’ items. Mrs Hickey has 10 children, 45 grandchildren, and by Christmas will have 29 great-grandchildren. It’s a dynasty. It also means that she is the recipient of many gifts of dolls from her large family.

While some of the collection are new, most are from car boot sales or charity shops, and look exactly like what they are: a child’s pre-loved, rather scruffy doll that they’ve grown out of. “Nanny’ll collect any kind of a doll but I’m more fussy,” confesses her daughter Helena, who is visiting. “I’m a bit of a collector too.”

Helena collects fancy dolls, crystal clocks (31 to date), tea sets, coins, stamps, and has fully furnished a three-storey dolls’ house. She collects both “half” and “full” tea sets. “A half set is 21 pieces, and a full set is 42,” she explains. She never uses them but “they get washed once a year”.

Another of Mary’s daughters collects holy water fonts; a collection now numbering over 100, “and every one of them different” .

“And I almost forgot. My eldest son collects key rings,” she says. “I suppose they got it from me.”

I’m taken into the sittingroom, where all the seating is occupied by scores of dolls. In addition to the dolls, and the many bird figurines atop cabinets, there is also a life-size old English sheepdog stuffed toy, which I discover when I trip over it on the rug in front of the fireplace. I’ve been too busy staring at the dolls to notice the dog.

“She likes to get dolls in their birthday suits and do them up,” Helena says.

Whenever Mary gets secondhand dolls, she will wash them, do their hair, and dress them in clothes she’s made or bought secondhand. The dolls she prefers are large; big enough to fit a baby or toddler’s clothing. “I used to change their frocks a lot more,” she says, showing me a box of clothes in a cupboard. In the past she knit cardigans for them, but she finds it a bit more difficult now.

Most of the 420 dolls are in the spare bedroom. Some are arranged on shelves that her son Martin put up for her some years ago, some cover the bed, and the rest are on the floor. Hundreds of eyes stare straight ahead. Mary looks at them affectionately, pointing out some favourites with her walking stick. “I come in here 100 times a day, looking at them and admiring them. If you went in and offered me €100 for one of my dolls, I would not take it. I love my dollies.”

Only two have names. One, Lucy, came with her name written on her shoe; a gift from a woman in Northern Ireland who heard about the collection. The other is Anna Marie, named for a grandchild who died of leukaemia aged 19. The Anna Marie doll used to belong to her grandchild, and is dressed in some of her baby clothes. “She’s special,” Mary says, stroking her hair.

She can’t explain the attraction of collecting dolls but ventures: “I used to love knitting for the girls when they were small. ”

“Maybe it’s because they don’t answer her back,” Helena laughs, looking round at the dolls silently looking back at us with their unblinking eyes.

This article was amended on October 1st, 2013