Soldiers of Fortune - A model army in the Making - The Irish Times 23rd August 2002

It's a magical place, where Gandalf and Bilbo hobnob with Napoleon's troops and Gráinne Mhaol - but Dev and Michael Collings are kept a discrete distance apart

There is nothing belligerent about the soft and verdant landscape beyond Macroom, where foxgloves spill out over the road and even the dogs can't be botherered to bark at the strange car passing. However there be soldiers in this neck of the woods. Thousands of them, in the wee Co. Cork village of Kilnamartyra.

The thing about these soldiers, however, is that none of them is more than a couple of inches high, since they, and scores of other tiny characters, are all made at the Prince August model factory.

The model factory has been in Kilnamartyra since 1979, and it is currently making more than 100,000 pieces a year.

It's a very laid-back factory in that you can wander round almost all of it and watch the models being cast, painted, and packed. There is a show-room at the rfont, and the longer you stand there looking at the display cabinets of tiny Tolkien figures, chess pieces, and soldiers of countless regiments, the more gigantic you feel yourself becoming.

Although also on display are the classic toy soldiers with their red jackets, by no means are model soldiers the sole preserve of children. There are many serious adult collecters out there, mainly (but not exclusively) male. If you are really into collecting, you want soldiers in the uniform of all the regiments. It's a bit like keeping up with your football team's latest strip. Among the many models here are Black Watch Pipers, Indian army officers, and Napoleon's army.

There is a file on display which bulges with letters and photographs from the collecting public, which testifies to the particular appeal of collecting models and model kits that you paint yourself.

The factory boasts the "largest collection of Mithril figures available in the world", with many representatives from Tolkien's Books.

You can buy a Hobbit for €6 and Gandalf for €12.50. There are dozens of characters here - ringwraiths, Bilbos, Collums, Frodos, Legolas, Sarumans, not to mention dragons, goblins, orcs and spiders. Women, apparently, love the dragon, which is the best individual seller they stock.

What puts the Macroom makers on the collectors' map is the fact that they are continually adding to their models; since Christmas alone they have designed 15 new Tolkien figures.

The factory's main project this year is a new chess set, which will be called the Brian Boru set. It already has sets ranging from the Napoleon set to Crusaders, from Confederates to Richard the Lionheart. The chess sets go up to €1500.

Who buys them? "Collectors, mainly. I don't think they are used, although of course you could play with them", Marjorie Cullen, the factory's PR officer says.

"We had a man in a couple of years ago who had collected 43 sets from round the world."

Kathleen Cronin and Eileen Kelleher are two of 20 employees whose sole job is the had-painting of the figures. It takes between 10-14 hours to paint 30 figures. Has Cullen ever tried her hand at it? "I'd rather eat them first," she admits.

Once you start looking closely, you realise how very skilled the work is: the figures are tiny and each shining buckle or tress of hair or piece of glinting armour must be painted, and up to 200 colours are used for the work. "I never get tired of painting Gandalf," Kelleher confides. "There is something special about him."

In addition to the chess sets, soldiers and Tolkien figures, there is a series of tiny, well-crafted, hand-painted figures called, "The Irish Heroes". These include people such as Robert Emmet, Pádric Pearse, St. Patrick, Gráinne Mhaol, Michael Collins, and Éamon de Valera

Only Gráinne Mhaol- the sole representative of our female line of heroes - is romanticised hopelessly. The Pirate Queen is dressed in a long Barbie-pink frock with Plunging neckline, complete with flowing yellow tresses and looking like a confused stray from a Disney film. It's a shame, since both the clothes and the stance of the others are given careful attention.

"St. Patrick was always the most Popular seller," Cullen says, "until we launched Michael Collins a few years ago. Ho now outsells all the others by 10 to one." Then she leans forward and says conspiratorially, "We like to keep Dev and Michael well away from each other in the displays. Out of respect for what they stood for." Sure enough they are places at a respecable distance from each other.

They do sometimes get very odd responses from the public. One American woman returned her figures of St Patrick when she got home, saying in her letter that he had "evil eyes" and could they amend this by repainting them" Folks, they did just that.