A biting wind assaults us as we make our way with visitor from house to car to the dark depths of mountainous south Dublin. It’s the penultimate Monday before Christmas and the American wants to hear some trad. Narrow, dimly-lit roads define the journey from the end of suburbia, where the roads climb and the capital hands the baton to the Garden of Ireland.
In summer, Johnnie Foxe’s car park is jammed and offers views of Dublin’s eastern coast. Tonight, it’s near empty and the view is like the one on the old postcard of Cape Cod at night. The wooden benches outside are abandoned. Only several smokers loiter.
Nine o’clock it starts, the barman told me on the phone earlier, but all the stage shows is an abandoned guitar and mike. Has it finished early due to lack of visitors or the indifference of the East European family lining the bar? The effigy of an old Peig Sayers lookalike, poised near a stove and wearing a Christmas hat, shows more enthusiasm than anyone else.
A man in his late thirties or early forties with a benign smile appears, surveys the barren landscape, and mutters something I can’t hear amidst the chatter of the neighbouring table of diners. He starts strumming his guitar then singing. The first song is almost unnoticed, yields hardly any clap. He sings another and again it’s as though none of the three dining tables have their hearing aids turned on. He sings and sings, smiling, graceful, sometimes barely pausing as he moves from one ballad mindful of the oblivious crowd.
‘Give him a clap of encouragement,’ my dad whispers to me, and the balladeer nods in gratitude as he slips away for a break.
The conversation has subdued slightly when he returns and looks out at his lonely kingdom. Then he lifts his head and voice and sings as though his life depends on it.
I don’t know if you can see
The changes that have come over me
And these past few days I’ve been afraid
That I might drift away
I’ve been telling old stories, singing songs
That make me think about where I come from
And that’s the reason why I seem
So far away today
Till almost eleven he fills our heads with ballads young and old, from the last century, the century before and the one when this pub became a home for drink and stories. There’s an intensity to the listening by the end that tells me the crowd recognise his talent. A thunderous clap meets the end.
As we drive home along the dark roads and look down on the twinkling nightscape of the capital I think about how lucky we were. The pub does well, has a phenomenal pull for tourists, Irish and foreign alike. It must make commercial sense to have a nightly offer of music. Yet not many places are reliable in offering decent music from a bustling summer Saturday night to the quietest, coldest Monday nights in December and every night either side. A capital city needs places with a consistent cultural offering, where above and beyond the marketing and the merchandise, there’s always art to be found. Johnnie Fox’s labels itself the highest pub in Ireland. In praise of its offering, I’d recommend the climb.
Let me tell you that I love you
That I think about you all the time
Caledonia you’re calling me
Now I’m going home
And if I shall become a stranger
No it would make me more than sad
Caledonia’s been everything I’ve ever had
Prices (16 December 2019)
Pint of Guinness: €5.50
Pint of lager: €5.80
Pint of ale: €5.50
330ml bottle of lager: €5.40
Measure of Bushmills: €4.95
1/4 bottle of wine (187.5 ml): €5.90
Soft drink: €2.90
Bottle of water: €2.95
Soft drink: €3.20