CORK lost a true legend when old-school publican Brian O’Donnell, of the infamous Hi-B pub in Oliver Plunkett Street, passed away in December, 2019.
A no-nonsense publican, he mixed great warmth and a huge sense of mischief with an iron rule over his little kingdom.
Brian loved chatting to the regulars and he favoured classical, jazz and opera music that he played on the record player resident behind the counter, long before piped music and CDs became the norm.
“He had a unique management style,” says Nancy O’Donnell, Brian’s wife. The Hi-B bar features in our new series The Bar Stool.
She grew up in the pub trade, in Aunty’s in Tower, Blarney, before she headed to London to a successful career in design with Mary Quant, returning to Cork to work in Sunbeam.
When we spoke, Nancy was looking forward to re-opening the Hi-B, trading in the pub that regularly makes the lists of best bars in Munster.
“I’m delighted to be opening up the Hi-B again for business now that things are getting back to normal after Covid,” says Nancy.
“When Brian was alive, I was very much in the background and not involved in the pub at all, but now, with the help of my daughter, Rachel, and our staff, I’m looking forward to welcoming back the customers.
“We have had the bar re-painted and the counter re-done but other than that, it is exactly the same as it was.”
There are a few important additions to the Hi-B.
“We have installed a coffee machine, so good coffee will be available, and we now have a credit card machine for our customers’ use.”
Where did Brian (left) and Nancy meet? “I was back in Cork working for Sunbeam and I loved it. It was great fun,” says Nancy.
“I met Brian at a symphony concert in the City Hall. He loved music.
“I was supposed to go with my friend but she couldn’t come, so I went on my own. I was in the queue and so was Brian. He was humming a tune and he had a paper under his arm.
"I sat next to him inside the concert hall. He was with two gentlemen he knew and I asked Brian should I move? We got talking.”
Brian nodded off during the concert.
“He was leaning into me and I gave him a dig!” says Nancy.
“He told me he was listening for the triangle in the orchestral piece.
“Brian asked me out after that. I didn’t know anything about him and I had no idea he was a publican.”
The landlord was keen.
“I was asked to a party in Dublin and when I returned to Cork and I got off the train, Brian was at the station to meet me!
“He had been studying medicine, but his dad died in 1958 and he took over the pub.”
Nancy got to know Brian well.
“He was very eccentric,” she says.
“He was like a contradiction. Brain could be charming, kind, or grumpy. He ran the pub the way he wanted. He was lively and intelligent.”
He liked talking.
“Brian loved the business,” says Nancy.
“The bar was like his own living room. Conversation was always very important in the Hi-B.
“The bar was a melting pot for conversation. Even the shape of the counter was conducive to conversation and interaction. It was a meeting place, and we are continuing with the same ethos and traditions that the Hi-B always had.”
Great nights will be had in the Hi-B once more.
“We always had great nights and great conversation,” says Nancy.
“People were always encouraged to meet, chat, and tell stories.”
Listening was important too.
Brian had a huge selection of classical music.
“When he got ill, I had more to do with the bar, and when he was in St Luke’s nursing home for four years, I helped run the bar.”
The pandemic swiftly closed the pub trade down.
“I was so sad when the bar was closed,” says Nancy.
“We were open one night and closed the next. We had no idea what was happening, we were in total shock. We thought we’d be closed for business for three weeks max.”
Now the Hi-B is up and running again in Oliver Plunkett Street.
“We’ll be open Thursday to Sunday and maybe Wednesday. We’ll see how it goes,” says Nancy.
Is she the boss woman?
“I suppose I am,” says Nancy laughing.
“I have great back-up from my daughter, Rachel, and her husband, Stephen. I couldn’t mange without them. The staff are delighted to be back, they are very sociable.”
She is looking forward to being open for business again.
“I’m a bit nervous about it. But I am very fond of the Hi-B. It is a very old building; a former hotel, there is huge space upstairs. So many people passed through here and so much happened here.”
Nancy remembers the pub’s halcyon days.
“When I was first married, there used to be a little clique here at lunch-time. The company and the conversation was amazing when young and old met and chatted. It had a really cosmopolitan atmosphere. I want that back again. I am really excited, it’ll be just like old times.”
Nancy hopes to have live music a couple of nights a week. “There is a piano here and we used to have a great resident musician, Dick, who is now deceased.”
“We have a huge appetite to open up again,” says Nancy’s daughter Rachel. “We have had lovely comments about re-opening and messages of encouragement on our Facebook page.
“The bar is looking good now with the new refurbishment. The last one was in 1990.”
Punters will be glad to visit old territory at 108, Oliver Plunkett Street
“The bar is exactly the same,” says Rachel.
“There will be no use of mobile phones! We want to encourage the art of conversation and good manners.”
Some things never change.
“We are delighted to be back and so are the staff,” says Nancy. “We thank everyone for their continued support.”
To catch up on The Bar Stool series, see here.