Amazing model railway with a tribute to my Cork grandad who died in WWI

HOLLY BOUGH EDITOR'S PICK: It took Mike Kelleher 20 years to complete his dream project — an intricate, fully-working model railway that fills an entire room in his house. In this story that appears in this year's Holly Bough, Mike tells THOMAS LONG why a bridge and memorial in it commemorate a Cork ancestor
Amazing model railway with a tribute to my Cork grandad who died in WWI

OFF THE SCALE: Michael Kelleher's model railway which takes up the 'best' room in his house and includes a tribute to his grandfather who died in World War I

WHEN you have spent two decades creating your own labour of love, what could be better than dedicating it to the people you love?

That was what Mike Kelleher did when he undertook a project to build a vast alpine-style model railway in his home.

He decided to name the tunnels after various relatives — his parents, his wife’s parents... and he reserved a special place in it for the Cork grandfather he had never met.

One of the bridges in his 5 metre x 3.4 metre masterpiece is named for Michael Donovan, and there is also a war memorial there in his memory...

The memorial to Cork soldier Michael Donovan in the model railway
The memorial to Cork soldier Michael Donovan in the model railway


Michael was born in 1887 in Dublin to Tipperary parents and moved to Cork and married a local woman, Mary Barrett.

They first lived on Evergreen Road and later at Wycherley Terrace, College Road. They had four children, Robert, Michael, Maureen and John.

In 1914, when World War I began, Michael was working with the Cork Examiner. His daughter, Maureen — mother of Mike — was just four, and baby John was not yet one.

It was now that a fateful decision in Michael’s younger days came back to haunt him.

When he was 15, in 1902, he had joined the Irish Guards, after the regiment was formed to great acclaim. When his family found out, they were aghast and arranged a ‘permitted buy-out’.

When Michael was recalled to serve in the regiment in 1914, it would cost him his life.

His only and last letter home to Mary in Cork was sent from Wellington Barracks, London, in a cheerful vain, advising her that all was well and to hug the children for him.

Michael was among the first Cork soldiers to go to France and the Western Front in August, 1914, within days of war breaking out.

Sadly, he was killed in action at Ypres on October 27, 1914, aged just 27. His name appears on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres and on the Cenotaph in Cork.

Mike says: “My mother, from whatever source, knew that at the time of her father’s death, he was part of a detail sent out to recover wounded men from the heavy fighting of the preceding days. The Irish had taken such a battering from the Germans on higher ground that the area was described as a ‘slaughter house’.”

Michael was sent into this and must have seen some terrible sights before he and a colleague were caught in the open and mown down by a German artillery shell burst.

“As luck would have it, the Irish Guards were relieved that night by the Coldstream Guards; too late for my grandfather,” adds Mike.


It’s a tragic story, one of so many that blighted families across Cork and Europe in that bloody conflict.

But, a century later, Michael Donovan’s grandson didn’t want to forget that sacrifice.

The bridge named after Cork soldier Michael Donovan
The bridge named after Cork soldier Michael Donovan

Mike began his model railway project at his home in Waterford in 1999. What drove his ambition?

“It was pure, self-interested miniature engineering,” he confesses. “My joy of model trains began in 1957, although the collection had to wait until my own children came of age, in the mid-1980s.”

Helped by his family, he began sourcing what was needed for the model railway while on family holidays.

“The dream lay-out had to await lifestyle and career stability,” he says, “by which time of course the task became a solo run, with admirable contributions to the mission by my wife Joan and daughter Ruth.”

A farm in the model railway
A farm in the model railway

Joan generously conceded her ‘best’ room to the masterpiece, and sourced resin buildings for the villages. Ruth, between her studies, patiently made towers for the fortress town walls and dam, and many trees — there are 683 in total! Mike built the rest.

As the project progressed, he says: “The ‘nameplates’ on items were just pleasant ongoing ideas. I decided to pay tribute to those who I remember with reverence and respect.

Mike Kelleher, who had help with his project from wife Joan and their daughter Ruth
Mike Kelleher, who had help with his project from wife Joan and their daughter Ruth

“Then Joan suggested I take it a bit further and include my grandfather.”

Mike designed the bridge dedicated to Michael Donovan on a rail route curve in stonework typical of Belgium, where he died.

The entire project was finished in 2019, after 20 years, and was this year named ‘Plan of the Month’ by Continental Modeller, a magazine for international model railway interests.

Mike came up with a name for his village: Himmelreich. “It sounded right for an alpine- style layout, and translated it means ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’. which at the end of the project seemed to pull together all that went before: dedications, villages, remembrances.”

The model is to scale — 3.55mm equals 1ft in reality — and the layout is based on open-frame timber benchwork with four distinct viewing areas.

The train routes are set on two levels and in four continuous circuits. The total track length of the layout is 68.96 metres.

The Kelleher family home appears in the model
The Kelleher family home appears in the model

The attention to detail is mind- boggling — there is an Austrian NATO Military Train, a Dutch Philios train, a Swiss Fromage Express and a Spanish ICI chemical tanker train. There is an oil depot, a roadside coffee stop, station signs, and signal boxes.

There are 31 tunnel portals — 19 rail, nine road, two motorway, and one for a canal — all named after great composers such as Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Handel, and Wagner.

A village within the model railway
A village within the model railway

The trains are fully workable and the push/pull switches of the block control panel came from a Portlaoise ESB station used in the original 1927 Shannon Scheme. They were cleaned up, colour coded, numbered, mounted on drilled Perspex, and connected to Mike’s track.

Rubber carpet underlay was used for the platforms and thick linoleum for roads, all suitably painted and lined.

Towers on the dam are named after Michael’s beloved old German Shepherd dogs, Jake and Sam, where they keep watch high over the Hydro Valley.

ONE of the tunnels is named after Mike’s parents, Tom and Maureen Kelleher.

Maureen, nee Donovan, attended St Marie’s of the Isle and left at 16 to work with the Hanover Shoe Company.

She married Tom, who left Blarney Street CBS at 14 for a job with Lunhams bacon curing factory, where he worked until his retirement at 68. They had two children, Mike and Joe.

Mike says: “My mother ran a small shop for a while in Gillabbey Street, and was an early feminist, always referring to herself by her maiden name, Donovan.

“My one disagreement with her arose when, at 16, I decided to join the reserve defence force (the FCA) to have funds to tide me over the study years.

“She wanted ‘no soldiers or uniforms in her house ever’, but I joined up anyhow, although I imagine she was privately delighted when, at 22, on leaving for a job in Dublin, I told her I had formally resigned and signed a discharge.”

At Lunham’s, Mike’s father was a key driver of new processes such as cooked ham canning, and spam production for the UK market.

Mike’s-in-laws, Bill and Mai Cahill, also have a tunnel named after them

Born in Kilbrahan, Co. Kilkenny, Bill (left) went to UCC and was a fine hurler. He helped UCC to a Fitzgibbon Cup in 1947 and also that year played a key role as corner forward in Kilkenny’s All-Ireland final win over Jack Lynch’s Cork.

A foul on Bill in the dying moments earned the Cats a free to draw them level. He then made the final pass to Terry Leahy for the winning point.

Read more stories like this in the 2020 Holly Bough. In the shops now and available online at

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