When Gay Byrne died, we were all reminded that everything ‘happened on The Late Late Show’.
Lots of things happened more then 200km from Dublin 4, most notably in the Hi-B bar on Oliver Plunkett St in Cork City, an establishment owned by Brian O’Donnell, a publican, proprietor, and raconteur who died early yesterday after a long life and a short illness.
His passing is lamented not just by his wife, Nancy, and daughter, Rachel, but by the tens of thousands of friends, customers, tourists and, most importantly, the few dozen irregular regulars who came to know the Hi-B as a home from home and frequented the pub from its afternoon opening until closing time.
The eclectic mix has included writers, artists, bankers, and lawyers as well as a battery of rich and poor alike.
An occasionally cheerful, but mostly grumpy publican whose exploits and foibles have become the stuff of folklore in Cork and beyond, Brian was a legend in his own lunchtime.
Up until recent years, when ill-health struck, he could be seen pulling legs as well as pints behind the stout, semi-circular bar counter.
His remarks, ripostes, and recollections were either a joy to behold or a suffering to be endured.
No mobiles phones, no chewing gum, and an order for non-alcoholic drinks would be met with a bombastic: “For Chrissakes, this is a public house, not a coffee bar!”
The fading sign behind the bar still warns: “The floggings will continue until morale improves.”
Other declarations include: ‘Those who drink to forget, kindly pay in advance’ and ‘Absolutely, positively no mobile phones’.
Once part of the Hibernian Hotel on the corner of Oliver Plunkett St and Maylor St, the upstairs bar was bought by Brian’s parents in the early 1920s.
The Hi-B was originally owned and managed by Brian O’Donnell’s parents.
After leaving university, he took over on the death of his father, because, as he was fond to declare: “I failed at medicine and didn’t have many options.”
In common with his customers, those who worked behind the bar invariably enjoyed the experience — but mostly in retrospect.
Renate (known as Rae), a barmaid from Canada, took to social media to reflect on her time at the Hi-B: “I worked in the Hi-B for two years while living in Cork. It is characterised by its eccentric owner and great friend of mine, Brian O’Donnell.
There are only two moods that Brian ever experiences – one is charismatic, charming, highly intelligent and the other is, dark, fierce and rather bombastic … a Jekyll and Hyde sort of personality.
“For those of you that have been offended, you have been touched by the Jekyll of the Hi-B; for those of you that have laughed have experienced Mr Hyde.
"I was fired and hired by both these men at least once a week in a two-year span.”
Brian’s Pythonesque ways were legendary.
Regulars would hardly lift their snouts from their pints if he came downstairs into the bar in his pyjamas.
Neither would anyone gasp in wonder if he sat on a bar stool wearing nothing but a grin and a tea towel.
Being barred from the Hi-B was considered a badge of honour.
Brian would sport a red card emblazoned with the legend ‘a talent to abuse’ as part of his ceremonial barring order.
This was a reference to the English playwright and entertainer Noel Coward, but also a salute to his favourite composer, Gustaf Mahler, who was famously known for his ‘talent to amuse’.
Over-indulgence would barely register with him, but drinking too slowly was something akin to a mortal sin liable to expulsion.
Wearing a loud tie risked having it severed with scissors, and adding coal to the fire was not recommended, as one customer found when Brian took a drink slug from his pint in retaliation.
The famous and the notorious graced the Hi-B during Brian O’Donnell’s long tenure as the man behind the bar.
They included comics Laurel and Hardy in the 1960s, Eamon Andrews, and more recently, Terry Wogan and Ryan Tubridy.
For many years, until his death in 2012, the Hi-B enjoyed the musical talents of Dick O’Sullivan who played the piano and conducted a weekly gramophone session.
He was followed by Franz Frank — ‘the flying piano man’ — a retired German professor of music who would fly into Cork from Munich every Wednesday to tickle the ivories in the Hi-B.
Brian himself had an array of talents, among them an ability to execute his exquisite pencil sketches and drawings, and some of his etchings of famous people from the 1950s still adorn the Hi-B.
His reputation as a curmudgeon belied his warm and engaging character as well as his personal kindness and readiness to impart advice to younger people.
He was, above all, a philosopher.
In his more reflective moments, he would offer a nugget of good advice.
Among his most memorable lines was: “Have someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.”
The phoney war
One night, a customer defied Brian O’Donnell’s mobile phone ban and began ringing a friend of his who was already in the bar.
Brian grabbed the phone and threw it out the window.
Getting thrown out of the Hi-B was a badge of distinction.
He once barred the entire staff of the Irish Examiner following an article about the Hi-B written by yours truly that he took issue with.
Brian was particularly mindful of the cost of fuel and when, one chilly night, a young man put a shovel of coal on the fire, he stormed out from behind a bar and took a slug from his drink, explaining: “That’s your drink, but that’s my coal.”
Brian disliked any unnecessary show of ostentation.
All was quiet in the Hi-B one Saturday afternoon when in walks a man with a young woman on his arm.
He was wearing a particularly loud and colourful tie.
Brian asked for a closer look at the tie and when the man relented, leaning further over for a fuller inspection, he took the tie in his one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, snipped the tie in half and shoved it in his shirt pocket announcing: “There, now you have a handkerchief to go with that ghastly tie.
“Now get out of my bar and don’t come back making a statement like that again.”