There’s a joke amongst Dubliners that if tourists ask for a good pub to go to, send them to Johnnie Fox’s and leave the city to the locals.
The joke is not as mischievous as it might seem since at the end of the 35-minute drive out of the city and up the mountains that crescent the south of the capital, is a traditional pub that has become the quintessential Ireland for tens of thousands of holiday makers.
The truth is, if you wish to visit a pub in Dublin that is enveloped in as much history and folklore as it is “craic agus ceoil” then you’d struggle to find one with more historical worth than Johnnie Fox’s Pub.
Everything about it is history. High in the Wicklow mountains, just outside the city, in the village of Glencullen, it was founded in 1798, the year of one of the bloodiest and most famous rebellions in Irish history.
It is situated in a village that served as home to Daniel O’Connell, the “Great Emancipator”, who championed the fight for equal rights for Catholics at the end of the 18th Century and start of the 19th Century. A few minutes’ walk away, and marked by an inscribed stone, is the site of one of O’Connell’s “monster” rallies.
Being outside the city of Dublin, and on the fringes of the bell heather-covered slopes of the Wicklow mountains – one of the deadliest routes for the marching British military – the pub itself was a regular meeting point for Irish patriots. The leaders of the 1916 Rising famously congregated there to discuss on-going plans for the imminent rebellion, with Michael Collins, later to be assassinated by his former comrades during the Irish Civil War, amongst them.
Even the great Irish play-write, Samuel Beckett, is linked to the place, with the story that his father took him as a 10-year-old boy to the top of Glencullen Road, minutes outside the village, to watch Dublin burning during that same uprising on Easter weekend 1916.
The pub itself, now a honeypot for intrigued tourists and indulgent Dubliners, boasts a decor and character that is steeped in the past and can successfully hide away its clientele from the monotonous labours of modern life.
Its exterior is reminiscent of a 1930s picture postcard, complete with a tiny two-seater Austen parked, flat-tyred, outside the entrance. Inside, it boasts a mini-labyrinth of tiny corridors which network its series of small rooms together. The roof is low, the rooms are square and small (though cosy) and the flagstone floor ensures a rustic flavour to the atmosphere.
Pitchforks, scythes and a collection of chamber pots hang from the ceilings. Longjohns, woollen socks and other clothing hang over the fire places to dry, and pictures adorn the walls of men, women and children of a by-gone era; it’s unlikely any of the wooden-framed snaps are less than 80 years old.
On the walls too are pictures of the famous who have stepped through Johnnie Fox’s doors, among them kings, queens, prime ministers and presidents. Those unlucky enough not to have their snap taken include Brad Pitt, among many; though how he managed to escape the camera is a legend on its own.
Every night there is music and song (ceoil), with a four-piece Irish folk group entertaining the crowd. Their Dublinese has foreigners reaching for their phrasebooks, but their particular Dublin wit, the banter and gravelly singing voices keep everyone amused.
And all the while a sandstone regular stands silently under a signpost with pint in hand, a sculpture that prompts as many jumps in surprise as photographs.
Yes. It is true that Johnnie Fox’s unashamedly panders to the tourist industry, but unlike so many bars and restaurants that seek a slice of that significant cake, it manages to pull it off successfully without losing its character.
There is still a local-ness (if there is such a word) about the pub, despite the throngs of foreign faces, the waves of foreign languages and the lightning storm of flashes from digital cameras.
The locals hug the bar with the old-style charm of the roaring turf fires and traditional music sessions keeping them as much enthralled as the visitors.
There is more, much more, but a visit is probably the best way to find out. I’ve not mentioned the award-winning seafood available there, nor the fact that the pub claims to be the highest in Ireland, nor the views over the Irish sea that greets the walkers in the area.
There is too much, but as a venue to visit during a holiday to Dublin, there are few (if any) better to go to.