Friday, March 8, 2013

The Goat, Goatstown-- Dublin's Best Pub?

On Wednesday evening (for reasons I won't go into) I found myself in the South Dublin suburb of Goatstown, a place with which I was unfamiliar. I had to call on a particular house. It was a drizzly evening and darkness was falling.

My sense of direction is abysmal, terrible, unspeakably dreadful. I tell people how bad it is and they nod and tell me that they have a tendency to get lost, too. Then when they see how bad it actually is, and realize how little I know my way around my native city, they are shocked and almost offended. But I told them. My sense of direction is so egregious that I can't even direct students around the college library where I've worked for twelve years. I have to accompany them.

So I set out waaay ahead of time, as usual, to make sure I found the house. I found it, after losing my way only once, and I had an hour to kill ahead of my appointment. In the middle of suburbia. In the drizzle.

I had passed a Chinese takeaway on my peregrinations, which was the only business open in a small row of other shops and offices. Apart from that, I couldn't remember seeing anywhere open to the weary wayfarer. And I needed to use the bathroom, too.

Suburbia is not a very inviting place, to somebody who has nowhere particular to go. It is all inside. Televisions glowed from behind living room curtains, and I imagined weary bread-earners contentedly sitting in their socks and watching cop shows. One woman was painting an upstairs bedrooom blue.

Outside, there was nothing much to look at except the rainwater dripping from the trees.

I set out in search of a pub or a café that opened late, without feeling much hope. It looked like the sort of place where, if you wanted to go anywhere for anything, you went in a car.

And then-- miracle of miracles!-- I turned a corner, and saw strings of little white lights ranged defiantly and jubilantly against the evening gloom. It was...a pub! Right beside me!

And it was not only a pub, but one that I had noticed with interest some years before (when I briefly lodged in the same part of Dublin, and I was lost). It was The Goat-- and you could tell that it was extremely proud of that fact. Signs and placards seemed to loom all around me, proclaiming that I had now arrived at the famous GOAT PUB, that delicious food waited for me inside, and that the GOAT was legendary for its entertainments and its sports-themed nights. The actual front of the pub, as befitted such an important place, was hidden from initial view, protected by screens of bush and brick.

I pressed ahead, hugging myself inwardly, and remembering the wise words of Samuel Johnson: "There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn".

Given the hoop-la that the pub makes of itself to the passer-by, I approached it with a little bit of trepidation. I was scared there might be one of those awful "Please wait to be seated" signs (considering this was a "gastro-pub"), or that the staff might be otherwise over-attentive or intimidating.

But not a bit of it. Nobody so much as looked at me as I walked in. That is the sort of welcome I like in a pub.

What can I say about The Goat? From the moment I walked inside, I fell in love with it.

It's bright (but not too bright). It's very spacious, too spacious to take in at a single glance. It has a comfortably low roof, giving it a coach-house atmosphere. It has wood panelling and leather-upholstered benches. The tables are not so close together that you feel cramped, nor yet so far apart (or screened from each other) that you lose the sense of conviviality that a pub should give you, even when you are on your own.

The tables all glow with that particular deep brown lustre that is unique to well-maintained pub tables.

There are open fires. Not just one, but several. I think open fires might be the most magical things in existence (after Christmas trees and snow).

There are decorated pub mirrors-- loads of them. And I would put decorated pub mirrors on the list with open fires, Christmas trees and snow. One day, in my own home, I would like to have a decorated pub mirror hanging over an open fire. Everything about them radiates cosiness, geniality, leisure, gentlemanliness, tradition and comfort. A pub mirror reflects a world I want to live in; though (like the worlds to be glimpsed in the reflections on Christmas tree baubles, or in snowglobes) it is a world we can only inhabit for fleeting moments.

Very importantly, The Goat has a comfortable, clean, pleasant bathroom. Maybe I am a wimp, or effeminate, but this is perhaps right at the top of my list of requirements when it comes to pubs. I have been in so many much-lauded pubs that have filthy toilets, with no soap available, and used paper towels stamped into the floor, and goodness knows what other squalour, that I have begun to think there is some kind of snobbery attached to pub bathrooms; that serious pub-goers are meant to forego such namby-pamby comforts as sanitation and hygiene. Over Christmas, I spent a miserable hour in a jam-packed city centre pub one night, standing just outside the toilets (there was nowhere else to stand). The stench was awful and I didn't even dream of venturing inside. I don't know how anyone can enjoy themselves in a place like that. But the Goat's bathrooms were a delight.

(Incidentally, suburban pubs are always nicer than city centre pubs, and not just in this regard.)

Food is served all day long. In fact, breakfast is served all day long. Is there anything better than breakfast? Yes, all day breakfast. I didn't taste the food, but it looked appetizing.

There are several bars, they are nice and wide, and I was served promptly both times.

I liked the décor more than I can say. The Goat is a sporting pub, and though I am neither a sportsman nor a sports fan, I do appreciate sport, and the memorabilia of sport. It seems to give off a glow of enthusiasm, nostalgia, and even poetry. Sports fans can talk for hours and hours about sports-- and I love anything that people can and do talk about for hours and hours, anything that is a bottomless well of fascination for at least some people. (I think there is no sight or sound more beautiful than two people losing themselves in a subject that utterly absorbs them.) There are framed cartoons of sports players. There are signed jerseys. There are smoky old photographs of sporting occasions from yesteryear. I liked the fact that the sporting pictures and memorabilia were not confined to one sport, or to recent sporting events. That gives the place a sense of depth, as though it has a repository of social history.

But the Goat's décor is not restricted to sporting subjects. There are many rather picturesque figures (of a Toby jug kind) and pieces of bric-a-brac lined about the place, and various representations of goats are dotted around, as well.

I know some people would scorn the "painted-on atmosphere" of pub like this, which is part of the Charlie Chawke pub group, and which has obviously been designed with an aesthetic in mind rather than developing naturally (whatever that means) over decades. It has been made to look rather time-mellowed rather than just getting that way. But I don't have any problem with this. Atmosphere is atmosphere. And the difference between the natural and the artifical is one that has exercised great minds since the dawn of time.

This pub seems like a combination of every good pub at once. For instance, I always say I hate television and music in pubs. But as I sat by the fire, reading my Chesterton biography and sipping at my Coke, I enjoyed it all the more because some of my favourite eighties hits were playing away unobtrusively in the background. That's the thing; the television screens and the music were unobtrusive, not drowning out conversation. There if you wanted them.

And finally, I liked the fact that the napkins (or serviettes) have the name of the pub printed on them. The whole place gives an impression of being an institution rather than a mere business. I like that kind of self-awareness, in the same way that I like books with introductions and people who have some definite philosophy of life. All these things seem more there than their opposites.

A thousand and five hundred words about a pub, in a blog that purports to be religious. How on Earth do I justify it?

Well, there's always some Thought-for-the-Day trick to give anything and everything a "spiritual" twist. But I do genuinely believe that all images of happiness and plenitude-- like a good pub-- can serve to remind us that God made us, not for grim duty (though we must indeed pass through Calvary), but for unimaginable bliss-- a bliss that Scripture does not forbear to picture in profane symbols such as Christ's symbol of a wedding feasts.

As G.K. Chesterton put it, "the inn does not lead to the road; the road leads to the inn".

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