Groucho Marx once said he would never want to join a club that would have him as a member.
Anyone who has ventured up the rickety stairs of the Hi-B will understand what he meant.
Unlike today’s fancy clubs and sleek pubs, the tiny bar on Oliver Plunkett St in Cork is surreal — not so much a place as an experience — and it is rejection rather than acceptance that is the mark of distinction most prized by Hi-B goers.
Many of the clientele are highly irregular regulars, a bit like the Hi-B’s owner, Brian O’Donnell, the sometimes genial and more often grumpy despot who lives and reigns over the bar.
Occasionally he will give over his reigning to do a bit of pouring but mostly you will find him either aloft or next to the fireplace, surrounded by newspapers and listening to classical music while watching for miscreants within range of his beady eyes and withering wit.
His Pythonesque ways are legendary. Do not be surprised if he comes downstairs into the bar in his pyjamas. That might elicit a gasp of wonder in more ordinary bars but not in the Hi-B. His sartorial ways are well known and old customers still talk of the time he sat on a barstool in nothing but a tea-towel.
Beware of venturing too far on the wrong side of Brian, because while being occasionally shown the door is a badge of honour, permanent expulsion is not.
Over-indulgence will barely register with him and you will not come amiss for arguing loudly or too passionately so long as you exhibit high intelligence. He will even indulge you if you happen to enjoy singing the Neapolitan ballad Santa Lucia as gaeilge and I can swear to that from personal experience.
But be caught whispering into a mobile phone or — God forbid! — texting and you will be immediately banished.
Other, more venial, preoccupations will attract a variety of sanctions.
Brian likes best the customer who orders something reassuringly expensive, and drinking too slowly will irritate him no end. Wearing a loud tie risks having it severed with a scissors, and adding coal to the fire is not recommended, as one customer found when Brian took a slug from his pint in retaliation.
Yet every few years Brian has managed to attract a new generation to the Hi-B. This is just as well because every now and then he will decide on a mass culling of clientele, and if it wasn’t for the large proportion of young imbibers, there would be nobody left.
So why do people return again and again? Hardly for the decor and certainly not for the dungeon-like gents’. There is only one word for it — craic, beloved of hard drinkers and easy listeners.
And the more cracked you are, the better.
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