Sil Fox: ‘My phone went silent. Nobody rang’

Sil Fox at home: ‘I just want to get back to telling a gag and making people happy.’ Photograph: Tom Honan

Sil Fox hasn’t really been himself since the day in early 2019 When he got a phone call asking him to come down to a Garda station

There’s no guesswork involved in finding the right house along the row of well-maintained, 1970s semi-Ds. There is a ceramic fox sitting in a flowerbed, a brass fox door knob and the word fox spelled out in capital letters beside the door. This is Sil Fox’s home, the place where he has lived for nearly half a century and raised a family with his wife, Laura.

He comes down the stairs with the agility of a man far younger than his 87 years. He is dressed in one of his trademark, beautifully cut blue suits with a pink shirt and candy striped tie. When the photographer arrives, he launches straight into showman mode, cracking jokes and turning on the megawatt smile.

This is the Sil Fox fans have been turning out to see in pubs, hotel function rooms and golf clubs around the country for the best part of 50 years; the Sil Fox fans of Liveline’s Funny Friday who know him for his old-school, mother-in-law humour.

He has thousands of jokes stored on index cards in his attic office, each one denoted by one or two keywords. His prodigious memory, and ability to retrieve any joke from its darkest recesses with just a single word prompt, is infamous. His son, Cyril, worries that he’ll die without ever writing them down.

This is the Sil Fox he wants people to remember: the man who made people laugh. Not the Sil Fox whose name and photograph were splashed all over the papers for the past year after he was prosecuted for sexual assault; a case that was eventually dismissed on May 27th this year.

But the truth is that Sil Fox hasn’t really been himself since the day in early 2019 he got a phone call asking him to come down to a Garda station.

He settles into the chair inside the big front window, a voluptuous calico cat curled on the floor beside him. Laura is in the other chair, and Cyril sits on a couch in the corner, with a scrapbook featuring all of the media coverage of the case.

Every surface and spare inch of wall space is covered with photos. There are photos of him with Dickie Rock, and a signed watercolour from Joe Duffy. But most are of the family, or Sil when he was captain of the golf club. The cat gets a large framed photo.

Slowly, in a voice that sometimes falls so quiet the tape recorder struggles to pick it up, he tells the story. It was a night in December 2018. He went into town to Harry’s on the Green for a few drinks with his friend, Rowland Soper, who is best known for writing the song that Dickie Rock performed when he won the Eurovision in 1966 (“RTÉ gave it to Dickie, but they should have given it to Rowland, because Rowland’s a great singer,” says Sil, loyally). Barry Murphy of Après Match was there too, and musician John Graham, who performs monthly gigs at Harry’s.

Sil Fox and Dickie Rock on the golf course. Photograph: Tom Honan
Sil Fox and Dickie Rock on the golf course. Photograph: Tom Honan

At some stage, “two women called me over: would I take a selfie? I said of course. And while I was getting this photograph taken, someone was pulling my arm.” The third woman, who was part of a different group, also wanted a selfie.

She said, ‘You molested me.’ She said, ‘You groped me. You’re a dirty old man’

Fox posed for a photograph with her. “I just said, enjoy your meal, and I walked back.” The whole incident was over in 10 seconds. Utterly forgettable, if it hadn’t been for what happened later.

Two or three hours later he was having a drink with Murphy, when the third woman approached him again. “She said, ‘You molested me.’ She said, ‘You groped me. You’re a dirty old man.’” She said she was going to put him on Facebook. Fox was incredulous. The woman reported the incident to the management of Harry’s, who promised to hold on to the CCTV.

Fox put it out of his mind – one of those strange, unsettling encounters – until the day he got a phone call asking him to go down to the Garda station, where he was told a woman had made a charge of sexual assault against him. “I said I didn’t need a solicitor; I didn’t do anything.”

It was months before he felt ready to tell anyone, eventually breaking it to his son Cyril as they lay side by side on sun loungers on holiday in Marrakech that spring. “I had to tell somebody.”

Sil had been putting a brave face on it. He didn’t think anybody noticed. Putting on a smile is what he does. “Even now, I’m finding it very difficult,” he says. He’s on tablets. Valium, which he takes “every now and then. You can get addicted to them… I’m on other ones as well, Lustral [an anti-depressant]. Something to do with your mood.”

Later, Cyril tells me he knew something was up with his dad before that holiday in Marrakech, but he could never have guessed what. “He was being very quiet. I didn’t know what he was going to tell me, but I certainly wasn’t expecting that.”

In June, Sil was told the DPP had decided to prosecute. The same day, the Sun carried a story which didn’t name him, but said a veteran celebrity had been accused of groping. The rumours started to fly. In July, his legal team’s request for reporting restrictions was turned down, and there began what his legal team has called a period of “intense media exposure”.

He couldn’t read most of the stories, but Cyril has kept them all in the scrapbook. Shortly afterwards, at Cyril’s persuasion, Sil walked up and down the cul de sac, knocking on doors to explain the situation. “I think it was important to do that,” Cyril says. “Mind you, I didn’t have to do it.”

What did he say? “Ah, I just said, I’ve no food in the house,” Sil says, as the room erupts into laughter. It’s a fleeting glimpse of the old Sil.

Old photo of Sil Fox on stage. Photograph: Tom Honan
Old photo of Sil Fox on stage. Photograph: Tom Honan

The case finally came before the Dublin District Court on May 27th. It was dismissed by Judge Paula Murphy because of inconsistencies between the complainant’s account and the CCTV footage. In short: the woman had claimed that Fox had put his left hand on her groin for 30-45 seconds as the photo was taken. The evidence showed this could not have happened.

In this case, it was proven that I didn’t do anything, but they knew that at the start. So why did it go to court?

Cyril has a copy of the CCTV footage on his phone. Sil can be seen chatting to the first two women, as the third woman leans across and touches him three time on the back, arm and hand. He comes over and leans in for a selfie. His right arm goes behind the woman. There’s a flash of his white cuff as he rests his left hand on the table in front of her. Her hand moves to his upper arm. His left hand doesn’t appear to move from the table, until just before he walks off, when it is out of sight for maybe three seconds. As he leaves, the woman reaches out and gives him a pat on the arm, in a gesture the court described as “good natured, pleasant”. Nothing untoward.

Sil was at home on May 27th when the phone call came from Cyril. “Dad, he says, the case is dismissed. I tell you, I really nearly jumped for joy.” He put on a suit and went down to the court where he made a statement to the television cameras, and gave an emotional interview to his friend Joe Duffy on Liveline.

Neither Sil nor Cyril wants to let it rest here. “The DPP saw the same CCTV as you did, and as the judge did,” says Sil. “They really need to look at the evidence more closely before they prosecute. In this case, it was proven that I didn’t do anything, but they knew that at the start. So why did it go to court?”

A letter sent to the DPP, the Garda Commissioner, the Minister for Justice, the State and the Attorney General this week by Belfast-based solicitor Kevin Winters outlines Sil Fox’s intention to sue for breaches of his constitutional rights to liberty, privacy and his right to a good name. The letter also cites the “reckless infliction of emotional distress” and “serious reputational damages” he says he suffered.

When asked by The Irish Times earlier this week to comment on the case, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said it “does not comment on individual prosecution cases”.

Sil Fox was not entitled to anonymity because this was an alleged offence that’s deemed less serious than rape or other sexual offences

Sil also plans to campaign to have the law changed so that people accused of sexual assault are not named until or unless they’re found guilty. “Sil Fox was not entitled to anonymity because this was an alleged offence that’s deemed less serious” than rape or other sexual offences, Kevin Winters says.  

“That’s a serious injustice and a gap that needs to be fixed. It shouldn’t be at the discretion of the court. There should be anonymity right across the board.”

Sil suggests that “the papers could still tell people what’s going on, Witness A, Witness B said, blah blah blah, that sort of thing. And then when it’s over, you can put the name out there. But don’t ruin the person’s life.”

Photos of Sil Fox during his 50-year entertainment career. Photograph: Tom Honan
Photos of Sil Fox during his 50-year entertainment career. Photograph: Tom Honan

Does he feel his life has been ruined? “Yeah. I really do. I mean I didn’t expect this at 87. People say, oh well it’s over. But it’s not just a question of the case being over. It’s the effect the whole year has had.”

How does it affect him on a day-to-day basis? “I have a feeling that comes over me. I get very depressed. And as the day goes on I get a bit better.”

He pulls a piece of paper up from the side of the chair and reads from it. “All shows were cancelled straight away, including RTÉ Radio. I used to get strange looks from people. I lost interest in going out. I had to go to a counsellor every week. I’m on prescription drugs. I’m not sleeping very well. I lost weight; I used to be a 36” waist; now I’m 34”. I avoided meeting people. There were a few funerals I wanted to go to that I couldn’t go to. My phone went silent. Nobody rang, except some friends. Real friends. Some of my so-called friends never rang to play golf.”

Have any of the so-called friends been in touch since? “A few, yeah.”

Will he take their calls? “Oh yeah.”

He’s not going to hold a grudge. “No way.” He shrugs. “I’m 87.”

We didn’t know what was going to happen. You could do nothing. But I never saw him so dejected

Two of Sil and Laura’s children are living in Australia, and they tried to protect them for as long as they could. “I don’t think we told them for a while,” says Laura. “There was no point. We didn’t know what was going to happen. You could do nothing. But I never saw him so dejected.”

Their daughter, also called Laura, Facetimes from Queensland in Australia while I’m there. It’s late at night there, but she wants to talk about the effect on her dad. “It was July when my mam rang me. It had hit the newspapers, and she was obviously very upset.”

Laura came home the following October and was shocked at how she found her dad. “My dad was a mess. Really, you know, he was just completely different. Cyril or Mam will tell you, he used to spend most of the morning shaking, just rocking back and forth. It really took a huge toll on his personality and his demeanour. It was a really terrible time. And,” she adds, “it just got worse.”

“Every time it was adjourned, I thought it’s going to kill him. He’s actually going to die. He won’t last.”

Laura is grateful for the dismissal, but “the damage mentally, physically and emotionally had already taken its toll on my dad, my mother, my brother and the family, the entire extended family. I’m only hoping he’ll recover from it. And my mam too. He needs to recover emotionally and mentally, and just try to get himself back together.”

Sil Fox has been in the entertainment business for 50 years, a feat only fully appreciated when you realise he didn’t become a comedian until he was 35.

He grew up in the Oliver Bond flats in Dublin’s Liberties. His father, who was a tailor, died of a heart attack at the age of 37, when Sil was four years old. He has no memories of him, just a photo he keeps on the shelf beside his chair. 

“My mam was asked did she want to put us into an industrial school, because she was so young she could have got married again. She said, no, she’d work. So she got a job cleaning the Four Courts.”

His mother persuaded him to stay on at school and go to technical school to learn tailoring. He worked in the trade for almost 20 years, eventually managing a hat factory. But then the Vatican “decided that women didn’t have to wear hats to mass. As Joe Duffy said, the Pope made you a comedian.”

The comedy came about by accident. He and some pals had a running competition to see who could tell the best joke, and Sil always won. He started doing open mic nights, and discovered he loved it. He knew how to get the crowd on side, even at the stag gigs he dreaded. He got into being the resident entertainer on golf trips. “South Africa, America, Australia, China, Hong Kong. I’ve been everywhere.”

In the attic office, where the walls are full of photos of him on tour over the past 50 years, he shows off some trinkets he picked up on his travels. There’s an obnoxiously loud talking steam train alarm clock that always makes him laugh; a collection of Tommy Tiernan DVDs. He stopped going up to the office during the past year. He couldn’t bear it.

His audience is getting on now, and the comedy scene is changing, but Funny Friday has kept him going over the past few years. Of all the work lost and the shows cancelled, that’s the one he’d really like to get back. He misses the gang, who have all been in touch with him individually.

Was he asked not to come back? “I more or less said it to Joe Duffy, and he said, well, we’d better leave it. I agreed with him.” They are waiting to hear now if he is welcome back.

His hope now is that people will know “that Sil Fox didn’t do what he was reported to do”

Cyril is eager for it to happen. “Do I have to write to the director general? Do I need to talk to Joe to get Dad back on?” he laughs.

“I’m sure Joe will say, listen he’s a pal of mine, I want Sil back.”

Whatever happens now, Sil feels he can go around with his head held high again. “Brian Kerr saw me up in the golf club and said, well done Sil. Brendan Shine rang me. Louis Walsh rang me. Louis rang me when it was on too. Fr Brian D’arcy. Mr Pussy [Alan Amsby]. Joe Duffy.”

He has a long list of people he wants to thank: his barrister and solicitor; his own children; his nieces; Rowland Soper, who was there throughout. His hope now is that people will know “that Sil Fox didn’t do what he was reported to do. And that it doesn’t happen to someone else. And that I will get my health back, make people happy again. That’s it. I’m not looking to be minister of anything. I just want to get back to telling a gag and making people happy.”