The best pub boss in Cork — bar none

December 13 marks the first anniversary of the death of legendary Hi-B owner Brian O'Donnell. This Holly Bough article pays tribute to the man who barred many - and was adored by all!
The best pub boss in Cork — bar none

CONDUCTOR OF CRAIC: Brian O’Donnell having fun in the Hi-B Bar in Cork city in 2001

RACHEL O’Donnell is chortling down the phone to me, as she reminisces about her father, the legendary publican, Brian.

“I started working in the Hi-B part-time when I was 16,” she recalls, “he would sack me if I was five minutes late.

“One time he called the guards because I was late. They turned up and rolled their eyes to heaven. Nowadays, they would prosecute him for wasting police time.”

Brian — character, raconteur, curmudgeon, and master of ceremonies at the Hi-B in Cork city — died last December aged 87, and anecdotes about his eccentric ways filled papers, the airwaves and social media.

But, anxious to heed that Irish proverb about not speaking ill of the dead — or de mortuis nil nisi bonum, as Brian might have put it — I wondered if there was another Brian, a less grumpy version, that his family knew.

I was soon put right there.

“What you saw really was what you got with Brian, he didn’t take any BS in the pub or at home!” says Rachel. “The stories are well documented and mostly true.”

Her father was “hilarious,” she says, but adds: “He had no filter, they would say today. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was eccentric. But he had an amazing brain and was very quick-witted.”

Ironically, Rachel’s favourite Hi-B memory did not involve him. The bar was originally built on the first floor in the 1860s as flooding was a frequent hazard until the Inniscarra Dam was built in the 1950s. All its electricity sockets in the stores are at ceiling height to protect against it.

“I remember one Saturday night in 1989 — I was doing my Leaving Cert — the tidal waters cane up to the third step on the ground floor,” recalls Rachel. “It was about 8pm. The pub was mobbed with people who were now stranded.

“Soon, all the shoes, socks and denims were drying by the fire. A few people had their grocery shopping, after a few hours we were all starved so the shopping was pooled and I made sandwiches and brought out a microwave and everyone tucked in.

“The atmosphere was fantastic, then the sing-song started. It was an unbelievable night. The waters receded at 2am and reluctantly everyone went home!”

The Hi-B used to attract Russian sailors berthed at the quays.

“Humphrey Moynihan of The Long Valley accepted their rouble but dad only took dollars and sterling,” says Rachel. “He got the Financial Times every day and got a great kick out of checking the latest exchange rates for the sailors when they came in.”

There was a gentler, softer side to the man too. Among his most memorable lines was: “Have someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.”

Tributes on social media summed up Brian O’Donnell.

Jim McKeon said: “The Hi-B was never just a pub. It was a combination of many things; a small, unique, magnetic, raggle-taggle institution where you could mingle with judges, bankers, barristers and newspaper men. One bank manager confided in me that it was a badge of honour to be insulted by Brian.

“Customers had to be careful what they did or said, or if they gave an opinion Brian did not agree with, or there was a good chance they might be ejected.

“Brian’s eccentricity was well-known. When many tourists arrived in Cork, they didn’t ask about Shandon or the Blarney Stone but enquired how to find the Hi-B. They loved him, he was a tourist attraction in himself.

“He simply did what he did and ran the bar the way he wanted, whether you liked it or not. The rules were his, take it or leave it. He was different in a good way.

“He would even indulge you if you happened to enjoy singing the Neapolitan ballad Santa Lucia as gaeilge. He seemed to like that. But if you were caught whispering on a mobile phone or, God forbid, texting you would be banished.

“Every few years he managed to attract a new generation to the Hi-B. It was just as well because every now and then he would have a mass culling of clientele.

“So why did people return again and again? There is only one word for it — craic. And the more cracked you were, the better.”

Publican Philip Gillivan, of the Shelbourne Bar, said the city’s bar owners greatly admired him.

“Brian was a legend. I think a lot of us admired what he did and most of us wouldn’t have the balls to do it. He just did what he wanted and ran the bar the way he wanted. The rules were his rules.”

The stories were legion after his passing.

Joe Seward said: “Somebody asked for a dash of rasa in their Guinness, and Brian retorted: ‘If you want pick and mix, go to Cudmores’. I also saw him refuse somebody a Glenfiddich scotch with ice and a dash of red. ‘Sacrilege,’ he said. A customer asked him for £5 in coins and Brian replied: ‘As far as I’m aware, banks don’t sell alcohol, so I won’t take the business of giving out coins’.”

Bree Ni Bhriain Breathnach said: “Had the pleasure of being kicked out one night because apparently my laugh was too loud.

Sheila Long recalled: “A friend of mine got thrown out for kissing his girlfriend.” While Sheena Crean said: “He threw me out one time for blowing my nose!”

Greg Matthews said: “I knew a fella who was told to get out because he was standing with his back to the bar.”

Siobhan Lawson recalled: “You wouldn’t get served if you were chewing gum, you’d be offered an ash tray to dispose of it.”

Jerry Murray said “Remember a fellow reading a book and he was told to leave as it was not a library. And a girl at work asked for diet 7Up and was told McDonald’s was up the road. But the best was no phones, pity more places do not do this and people might talk to each other again.”

John Noonan said: “Was in one night during the Jazz Festival, I was leaning back on a chair, he told me the man who made it put four legs on it. If he caught me doing it again I was barred.”

Carmel Corbett said: “First night ever in there, I had the cheek to ask for ice in my drink, OMG, he told me that it was far from ice I was brought up, and closed the pub, everyone had to leave, what a character.”

It’s been a tough year for pubs, but Brian’s wife Nancy is still running the Hi-B. The last word on him goes to Rachel. “Micheál Martin, the future Taoiseach, came to his removal, dad would have loved that. He would have loved being in the Holly Bough too.”

Read more articles like this in the Holly Bough, on sale now in shops and online at hollybough.ie

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