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A toy story: Why Crolly dollies are a rare piece of Irish cultural history


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The Crolly doll factories, one in Crolly and another in Spiddal, Co Galway, were an initiative of Gaeltarra Éireann. Their aim was employment for young women from the Gaeltacht who would otherwise have emigrated. Nobody expected the Crolly doll to become an international superstar.

Writing for the National Treasures archive project, Lindel Buckley writes: “By the mid-1940s, 60 Irish-speaking girls in orange-tinted uniforms turned out 10,000 dozen dollies yearly; a half million yards of material arrived in bales and left as dolls, supplying the home market and a substantial export market in the UK and US … Orders rolled in from buyers for firms in Sweden, Cyprus, Australia, Canada, the US and South America, as well as from many European countries, with exports worth £1.5m.”

By 1952, the factories employed between 60 and 70 workers, with wages ranging from 40 to 50 shillings per week for women, to 85 shillings per week for men.

In 2019, a Crolly “composition” doll, catalogued as dating from the 1940s, turned up at Vectis Auctions in England. With blue eyes and a dark curly wig, her clothes were a nod to the traditional Irish combo of green skirt, white lace apron, and red cloak.

Her jointed body contained a key-wound mechanism that played When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. The label on her wrist read: “Crolly Dollies Factory Crolly Co Donegal”. She sold for £110 (€129).

This Crolly doll in its original Gaeltarra Eireann sold for €120 at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers in 2017.

“It would have taken quite a lot of saving to buy one for your child,” says Megan McAuley, historian of childhood in Donegal.

“Everyone wanted to get their hands on one. There was a huge sense of pride that these dolls came from a small village in the Gaeltacht. They had a cult status within the community. Most local people couldn’t afford to buy them but they often came up as prizes in local competitions.”

A popular ballad, The Crolly Doll (1957) by local teacher Seán McBride, tells of a young man who wanted a doll but came home with a wife.

The earliest dolls had cloth bodies and ceramic heads imported from England, or composition heads from Canada.

In this context “composition” refers to a material made from sawdust and glue. It predated plastic and was a less brittle alternative to china. By 1952, the body parts were made in the Spiddal factory.

Someone in Gaeltarra Éireann was serious about innovation. They pioneered blow moulding, which produced lightweight dolls, and introduced rotational casting of PVC. This softer plastic could be penetrated by needles used to sew in hair.

In the factory’s 40-year history, the dolls evolved from simple soft-bodied toys to sophisticated style icons with clothes that reflected the fashion of the time

In the factory’s 40-year history, the dolls evolved from simple soft-bodied toys to sophisticated style icons with clothes that reflected the fashion of the time.

Anne O’Leary, a collector who donated her Crolly dolls to the Museum of Childhood Ireland in 2018, has researched their manufacture. “The clothes were as interesting as the dolls,” she says.

O’Leary grew up in Dublin in the 1960s and remembers the day her mother went into town to buy a pair of shoes for her father’s Christmas work party. “Instead, she came home with three 24-inch Crolly dolls, one each for me and my two sisters. And no shoes! So there Crolly dolls cost as much as a pair of women’s shoes. I often wonder how she managed to get them home on the bus.”

The variety of Crolly dolls produced over time is spectacular. They included a walking doll which looked like a real child, and a doll that sung London Bridge is Falling Down in a clipped English accent. There were baby dolls of colour and some that roared like a real baba. One baby-faced male doll wore a green jacket and carried a shotgun.

The factories also made leprechauns and teddy bears. In the early 1970s the name of the toy and doll industry was changed to Soltoys Limited and production ceased in 1979. A new Crolly doll factory was set up in 1993, making soft-bodied porcelain dolls with an Irish cultural theme.

There are many gaps in the history of these toys. The Museum of Childhood Ireland collects stories and photographs from people who remember owning or playing with a Crolly doll. Any information about those who worked in the factories or made clothing for the dolls is also of interest.

See vectis.co.uk and museumofchildhood.ie

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