By Georgina Downes

I’m sitting in Sean Óg’s with the inimitable Johnny McElligot, discussing the history of the pub. The place is custom built, he says. I think he’s joking; it looks so authentic – surely it’s always been a pub.

“No. It’s been a casino, a shop, but never a pub before. It was built from the ground up with architect Ger Dowd.”

I’m shocked, and not for the first time chatting to Johnny McElligot; the man is full of surprises. For instance; he was working in Berlin when The Wall came down (yes, he took a piece as a souvenir); he’s a big classical-music fan; his mother used to call him Sean Óg and he bought this iconic Bridge Street pub when he was barely twenty years old.

“We wanted the place to look olde-worlde,” he says.

Box ticked. When you walk into Sean Óg’s, with the music hopping and Guinness flowing, it’s easy to imagine your great-grandfather enjoying a pint in front of the fire.  But  how did the very young McElligot afford to buy a pub?

In his affable way, and with all the confidence of a man whose done well for himself, Johnny explains.

“My family background is in farming and my mother had a boutique in Ashe Street. I was sent boarding when I was 12, to the Salesian’s in Pallaskenery.”

Did you like it?

“Loved it,” he says without hesitation.

Any favourite teachers?

“Fr Padraig Donnellan. He taught English. He gave me an appreciation of poetry.”

At this point, bar manager, Timmy Moynihan, stops polishing glasses to let out a chuckle. Johnny laughs too. Any particular poet, I ask.

“Wordsworth,” he smiles. I don’t ask him to recite any.

After four happy years boarding, Johnny sat the Leaving Cert. He applied to NIHE and got a place to study accountancy but decided to head west instead.

“I went to America when I was sixteen, working. I stayed with relatives in New York and Long Island, and worked on the buildings.  My first job was with Galvin’s, an Irish-owned construction company. Basically, we worked hard and never went out. I became foreman for a scaffolding company then and just saved my money. I stayed there until 1995.”

In 1989, on one of his trips home, he bought Sean Óg’s, but didn’t tackle its conversion and restoration until 1996,which included creating the Guest House upstairs.

“We opened ‘The Shed’ in May 2019, which has been great.  You need to be able to hold a lot of people, especially if you’re doing live music. Tourists love it and 40% of our business is from tourism.”

Johnny’s wife Joan, whom he married in 1999, is the backbone of the family and the woman behind his success, he tells me.

How did you two meet?

“Joan came to work behind the bar. She doesn’t work here now but she does the interiors and design and things.”

Joan also runs a busy home with three children. Their eldest son is studying Opera in Dublin, their daughter is doing her leaving cert and the youngest is in transition year.

Johnny’s phone rings again. He excuses himself to take the call and I look over my notes. McElligot has been around. He’s toured Europe twice, on a Honda Goldwing.  Motorbikes are his passion. He owns an FJ 1200 Yamaha and a Kawasaki. But skiing is his passion too. And fishing. And business. And music. In fact, Johnny is passionate about life in general, which makes him good company and a great interviewee.

Now that you’ve achieved a modicum of success in business, any signs of slowing down, I ask.

“Not a hope,” he laughs. “Actually, we Just got planning permission to do a wine, gin and whiskey bar around the corner. Hopefully, all going well, we’ll see it open in May 2021.”

I could talk with Johnny all day, uncovering all sorts of anecdotes, but we don’t have the time so I put together this quick-fire questionnaire. Johnny, are you ready?

“Fire away.”

Fish & Chips or Fine Dining:     Fish and chips

Morning Bird or Night Owl:     Night Owl

Text or Call:                                  Call

Tea or Coffee:                              Coffee

Sea or Woods:                             Sea

Books or Movies:                      Movies: The Godfather is a favourite

Newspaper or Online:             Newspaper, The Times or Indo

Love or Money:                          Love making money

Pop or Classical:                        Classical. Bach or Tchaikovsky.  I have classical Spotify list.

Comedy or Drama:                 Drama

Soccer or Football:                  Football

Cats or Dogs:                            Dogs

Stubble or Clean Shaven:       Clean Shaven

Starter or Desert:                   Both

Hunting or Fishing:               Fishing. Used to fish. Always had a boat in Fenit for fishing. Would fish for sea bass.

Winter or Summer:                Winter, for skiing

Rural or Urban:                      Rural

Android or I phone:                 I phone

Ketchup or Mustard:              Ketchup

Tattoos or Piercings:               Neither

Exercise or Couch Potato:       Mixture

Money or Free Time:             Free time.

And finally, what tips have you for any budding entrepreneur?

“Make sure you have your market research done. And get good staff. Work hard and move with the times. And have passion,” he says unsurprisingly, smiling.

Johnny McElligot, it’s been a pleasure.