I don’t envy whoever is charged with delivering Brian O’Donnell’s eulogy before he’s sent on his way next week. His formidable reputation preceded him, and everyone who ever set foot inside the bar he ran, The Hi-B, on the corner of Oliver Plunkett Street and Winthrop Street in the middle of Cork city, will have left with a story, a scream and often a flea in the ear. Brian was a prolific hit factory and, since news of his death was announced this morning, many of his greatest put-downs, one-liners and japes have already had an airing. There are volumes more in the vaults.
In the best traditions of the great bars, The Hi-B was cut in the likeness of its owner, whose tics and traits could be read in the absence of anything remotely new-fangled or contemporary on the premises. His only aesthetic concession within the four walls of the tiny pub was to classical music and, in some of his balmier moments, he’d come out from behind the bar and blast out a couple of verses from an aria. The bar was utterly pretentious in its outward lack of pretentiousness and, once inside the door, no one was allowed to be more intelligent, or to enjoy more intelligent pursuits, than the owner himself.
I killed many an hour in The Hi-B, either avoiding the grim inevitability of work or, as was often the case, preparing to go on somewhere else. From the leather seats in the window, you’d be able to look down onto Winthrop Street and get a sense of the mood around town. This was especially so during the clammy evenings in summer while the buskers – Mark O’Sullivan and Tony Campagno, most prominently – were going at it on that pitch just beside The Long Valley, in many respects The Hi-B’s spiritual companion across the street.
Try as I did – and I made numerous efforts – I found it impossible to ever spend an entire night in The Hi-B because of the constant honk of cordite. You never knew when Brian might wire into you and it was always better to get out of there while the scores were level. And so he became my regular support act whenever any artist of note – and plenty more without a note – were playing at De Lacy House, down at the other end of Oliver Plunkett Street. From high culture to popular culture in the length of a street, this, for many years, was my routine.
For a bar whose regulars fetched up from all arts and parts – think of the cast of Cheers and then think of the absolute polar opposite, many of them in tweeds and twill, and you’re close – The Hi-B was perennially popular with students, and students were popular with Brian. Many of whom he saw, I suspect, as fresh meat in need of intellectual seasoning and proper finishing, which he provided in abundance. To that end, and ever so slightly mis-calibrated, The Hi-B was the most interesting and tangential bar in the city, like something that Quentin Blake might have drawn for a Roald Dahl short-story co-written with Seán Ó Faoláin. Shabbily chic – or, in old money, dusty and dilapidated – it boasted a considerable beard quotient too and, despite its contempt for trends and trend-setters, certainly attracted its share of posers, poets, fashionistas and thinkers. The odd time, you’d even see a woman there.
But Brian was quick to adapt, too. In Dan Buckley’s profile of Brian in The Irish Examiner in 2012, the writer mentions how his subject grew to despise mobile phones and technology with the same ferocity as he long disregarded radio, television and broadcasters. His philosophy was simple: bars were for drinking and socialising in and, therefore, that space needed to be tended and protected. And so although it always looked to me like it was plugged in, I can never remember the old television set ever once being turned on, even if regulars assure me it was briefly defibrillated into life during the penalty shoot-out at the Ireland-Romania World Cup match in Genoa in 1990. A game which clearly took place while Brian was elsewhere.
Sport was just too coarse for a publican of far more sophisticated tastes. Which is ironic given how Brian sits into Cork’s canon of public personalities – Sonia, Seán Óg, Roy – known popularly by their first names only and for their heroics on the fields and tracks. Indeed it was only when I had to interview him for a short Hot Press preview years ago that it dawned on me to ask him what his surname was. For years, he’d simply been ‘Brian’ or, at a push, ‘Brian from The Hi-B’.
By then, and like practically everyone else who set foot inside the door of his first-floor speakeasy, I’d routinely been abused by him from behind the bar, threatened with various suspensions and warned about my manners. And like most of his other customers, I kept going back there because, in my more reflective moments, and once I’d looked into my heart, I knew he was right in everything he said.
But the cabaret and the burlesque was really seductive too, what strategists and marketing executives now refer to as ‘unique selling points’: and precisely the kind of guff that Brian would put the run on you for. During the summer of 1990, I was helping out on an RTÉ Current Affairs investigative piece on some bent goings-on out the road and, every evening, I’d convene with the producer and reporter in The Hi-B to assess our progress. My colleagues, neither of whom are from Cork, were captivated by Brian, his bar and what they termed ‘The Floor Show’: like The Late Late Show in its pomp, The Hi-B was unscripted, live and you were never quite sure who was going to turn up, how drunk they were going to be and what was going to kick off. With Brian producing, directing and presenting, naturally.
Like everywhere else, Cork has long had its share of cranky bar owners, male and female, and Brian was as frequently discourteous as the worst of them. He was the antithesis of anything they ever taught you about protocol and etiquette in what we describe as ‘the hospitality sector’, but then, while he ran his bar, he never regarded himself as anything other than an old-school publican. ‘Support your local breweries’, he once chided a friend of mine whose crime was to order a bottle of sparkling water.
Because beyond everything else, Brian knew how a bar worked. This wasn’t just a business or a trade. It was far more important than that.