This is a story about love at first sight and, like all such stories, this one might not have turned out the same if the timing or the light had been different. But things are what they were, so here it goes.
On a sunny June afternoon in Dublin, I fell in love with a pub. Google Maps told me it was Dame Court – a more modest way, I presumed, than the boisterous Dame Lane it turns off from. The patio was energetic just the same, but the narrow road, with fewer distractions than a denser strip, encouraged me to notice details like two small stag heads perched outside above the door like sentinels, one missing an antler, a charming imperfection. I was struck by the quirky font above the door, every tip of each letter marked with a small perpendicular line, like the skull of a hammerhead shark. I had a sense that this pub was special.
I sat down and ordered a Guinness and within moments, I was smitten. I’m not sure if it was the friendly but not-too-friendly-because-I-have-work-to-do-and-business-is-business tone of the bartender, the squat pillar above the door carved with detailed stags from a single piece of wood, the stained-glass windows along the main room, the stained-glass dome and worn wood benches in the back room, the wallpaper, or the mix of guests, whose overlapping conversations ran the gamut from convivial to contemplative. There was no music, no televisions, just the sounds of people connecting.
I had first visited with a few friends, chatted briefly with manager Pat Dowling, and was so enchanted by the place that, like anybody with her eye on an object of affection, I wanted to know everything about it. So I returned two days later. Pat had generously agreed to meet with me and as we spoke, it became exceedingly clear: falling in love with this pub, which celebrates its 250th birthday next year, is something of a basic instinct. Pat told me of growing up in County Carlow, working as a butcher because his father put him up for it, and hating it.
Around 2005, he spotted an advert for an apprentice bartender in a local paper and hopped the bus to Dublin for an interview. Bar owner Louis Fitzgerald, whose restaurant group, according to the website, has 19 bars, restaurants and hotels in its repertoire today, asked about his experience. Pat told him he had none, but he liked people. And he’d been a captain of several sporting teams in high school.
Louis told him to come bartend for three days at one of his pubs in County Kildare. He agreed. There was the massive Punchestowns Irish National Hunt Festival on that week, so, turns out, Louis was hazing him. Pat passed. He told me he went home with boots full of money, told his parents he was changing careers, and moved to Dublin. He hasn’t looked back.
Pat worked at the Stag’s Head, bartending then managing, for nine years, then off for greener pastures for three, just to see what’s out there. Louis called him back, he told me. But that’s a mere technicality. It’s easy to assume that if his longtime boss, who’ll hit 50 years in the bar business this year, hadn’t appealed to him to come back, he would have anyway.
As Pat and I chatted for the good part of an hour, he told me that Louis always maintained that they were merely custodians of the bar, just there to steer the ship; that Irish pubs are dying off but this one manages to flourish; that there were six Irish whiskeys on the shelf when he started in 2006 and when he left for his sabbatical, so to speak, in 2015, there were 127. I couldn’t imagine him sitting anywhere else telling a reporter about his job as adoringly as he was speaking about the pub.
As he walked me out, he pointed out a few details, the taxidermied stag’s head over the bar is actually an American elk, felled in Alaska; the stained-glass windows were commissioned by Louis from a school where renowned stained-glass artist Harry Clarke was trained; etc.
Like learning about the virtues and charms of a new love, every detail made me fall harder.
Oh, and that font outside? 'Quirky' doesn’t even begin to describe it. “The typeface doesn’t exist,” he told me, “whoever made it made it on the fly.” A true original, like the pub itself.