Legendary publican Brian O’Donnell of the Hi-B bar was yesterday given a fitting send-off by his family and a large gathering of friends who came together on a cold and cloudless day to remember a man as warm and as wildly eccentric as the city itself.
Wife Nancy, daughter Rachel and family members drew comfort from the eclectic mix of novelists, poets, artists, lawyers, business people, and the occasional pauper who attended the requiem Mass at St Peter and Paul’s church in the city centre.
It was not so much a day of mourning as a celebration of a life well lived by one of Cork’s most fascinating characters. Shortly after 12pm, crowds began to gather at the entrance of the church, a Gothic revival structure located between Paul St and St Patrick St, where it has stood since 1866.
There were, thankfully, no hawkers but there were gawkers aplenty, as mourners from all walks of life began to file through the western doorway of the church, into the majestic central nave. Among them were journalist David Monaghan and the former editor of the Irish Examiner, Tim Vaughan.
Mike O’Donnell, a namesake and contemporary of Brian’s, was among the crowd shivering outside the church, waiting for the requiem Mass to begin. Like many of those gathered there, he was taken to reminiscing.
“I knew Brian in his milder days,” said Mike. “He was great at the pub quiz.”
The notion that Brian had milder days came as a surprise to those who endured his occasional wrath, but not his prowess at quizzes, as many of the mourners knew Brian as erudite, with a formidable knowledge of music, art, literature, and history.
The Mass was celebrated by parish priest Patrick McCarthy, who described the Hi-B as an institution marked by Brian’s character where mobile phones were banned — as they are in churches — for good reason.
It was a capital offence,” he told mourners, “but it was not just a negative prohibition but a positive reaffirmation of the value of living in the present.
The only exception to that rule was friend and photographer Billy MacGill.
“When he caught me on the phone, I told him I couldn’t afford a secretary and he granted me a rare exemption,” said Billy
Brian was buried in St Finbarr’s cemetery, the Cork equivalent of Dublin’s Glasnevin. In his lifetime, he enjoyed — and sometimes endured — the company of thousands of his customers, as well as friends and family.
In St Finbarr’s, Brian is also in good company, as it is the resting place of other famous Corkonians, among them Taoiseach Jack Lynch; sculptor Seamus Murphy, and Cork’s first Lord Mayor Daniel Hegarty, as well as martyrs Terence McSwiney and Tomás Mac Curtain.
Brian’s daughter, Rachel, paid a brief and warm tribute to her father, recalling his enduring curiosity about the world around him.
“He bought four newspapers every day,” she told the congregation in her altar eulogy, before adding, with a flourish: “He was as mad as a box of frogs, but we loved him for it.”