Michael Place ushered his next batch of tourists into the two carriages towed by his little red road train.
It was just after 3pm on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the car park behind the Malahide DART station.
With everybody aboard the Toots train, Place rang its bell and steered out of the station towards the Malahide Demesne.
“You gotta go around, chicken!” he bellowed in a cheerful and husky voice to the motorist ahead of him who lingered behind a stopped bus. “Around!”
Waving and ringing the bell to bemused and delighted passers-by, he steered the train into the park, pointing to a limestone lodge just inside the entrance.
That’s Hogan’s Gate Lodge, he said. It is a single-storey building dating from the 1880s, with a coat of arms above one of its windows, its motto reading: “forte et fidele” – strength and faithfulness.
The lodge was used by gatekeepers, Place says, of which there were five. They were the middlemen between the village and the lord, he said.
“Back in the day, obviously these gatekeepers were very important,” Place says. “If you needed to get something done, they were the guys.”
But though Hogan’s Gate Lodge is the first impression for many who enter the park, it and three of the nine other lodges around the demesne are empty and idle.
For years now, local councillors have been pushing for Fingal County Council officials to reopen them as community spaces, or commercial spaces, or as housing.
Hogan’s Gate Lodge was refurbished back in 2015, and a council official told the Howth-Malahide Area Committee last week that the council is looking to bring it back into action soon.
But there are two others south of the demesne, on Back Road – a gate lodge and a cottage across the railway bridge – which are both boarded up. And a third on the grounds, says Fine Gael Councillor Anthony Lavin. “That one is in a very poor state of repair.”
They aren’t suitable for housing, according to Aoife Sheridan, a senior executive officer in the council’s Economic, Enterprise, Tourism and Cultural Development Department last week. But she told councillors that the council would commit to look at them for potential community or commercial uses.
Not in recent memory
As long as Lavin, the Fine Gael councillor, can remember, the lodges have been idle.
“It could be 20 or 30 years in some cases,” he said, over the phone on Thursday afternoon.
Fianna Fáil Councillor Eoghan O’Brien couldn’t put a date on it either, he says.
Lavin says they were all originally accommodation for staff. “There are people still living in some, but the others are just falling into disrepair.”
On Wednesday 6 September, Lavin submitted a motion at the council’s Howth-Malahide Area Committee meeting, asking that council’s chief executive review the vacant cottages and gate lodges to find a use for each one.
A response, from Sheridan, said their potential and most suitable uses are being examined by the Economic, Enterprise, Tourism and Cultural Development Department.
The department is looking at refurbishment and operational costs, and potential funding opportunities, her report said.
But it wasn’t the first time Lavin had asked about their re-use, he said. “We don’t seem to have progressed too much.”
As far back as April 2013, Lavin had submitted queries to see if the buildings could be used as accommodation. At the time, he was told there was no funding to pay for any refurbishment.
At the area meeting on Wednesday, Lavin said that one or two of the properties could still probably be suited for housing.
Lodges like Hogan’s Gate might not be good for that, he said. But the cottage south of the demesne, across the railway line on Back Road, may be, he said.
If there is a way of doing this, it should be done, he said. “If not, fine, call it and find another use for it, rather than waiting as we are.”
Sheridan said that a preliminary assessment had been carried out, and housing had been ruled out for all the lodges.
“On the back of that, we have to look at the potential uses that will be complimentary to what’s already available in Malahide,” she said.
Green Party Councillor David Healy said they should find out what the local interest is and look for suggestions.
“Maybe we should put notices on them to say the council is currently looking at potential use of these heritage buildings and would be interested in hearing from people,” he said.
Many community organisations are looking for spaces, he said. “I think we should open it up a bit. We haven’t been coming up with much progress on our own.”
O’Brien, the Fianna Fáil councillor, said there are massive funding streams for refurbishment projects.
He pointed to McAllister’s Gate Lodge, built in 1898, which had fallen into semi-dereliction.
Between April and December 2017, it was refurbished by the council and re-opened as a studio space for an artist.
Whether or not the properties can be used for community or commercial uses will be taken into account when considering their repurposing, Sheridan said.
“We are giving a commitment to looking at these properties, and that will be reflected in the capital budget,” she said.
Midway through the Toots ride, while trundling by the bathers on the beach, Place whipped out a long cardboard box.
Inside was a model train, he said.
He has run the Toots train for 11 years now, he says. “But I’m also a toymaker, and I make these for tourists.”
Why not turn a place like Hogan’s Gate Lodge into a workshop, he says. “Why not use it for that or a little museum?”
At the area meeting, Sheridan said her department had been given the keys to the lodge. “And we’re looking to repurpose it in short order. That’s going to come back into use reasonably quickly.”
Some of the other lodges remain in serious disrepair, she says. “A lot of them have accessibility or utility issues that are extremely costly to turn around.”
So the council does not want to raise expectations, or promise that the other lodges will be back in action next year, she said.
Lavin, the Fine Gael councillor, says he suspects Hogan’s Gate will be used for some kind of tourism venture.
But the cottage beside the railway bridge, he still thinks could be turned into a home, he says. “For a person, or maybe a couple, or new staff in the demesne.”