Tuesday 23 July 2019

Pól Ó Conghaile: 'I broke Cork's cardinal rule, and here's what it taught me'

“It’s one of the last places where people still talk to each other,” one fan says of the Hi-B

Cork City. Night descends on the River Lee. Photo: Deposit
Cork City. Night descends on the River Lee. Photo: Deposit
Cork. Picture: Failte Ireland
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

"No mobile phones. Talk to each other."

At first I thought it was just a sign. You know, like “No credit” or “Cash only”. But shortly after popping off a photo of my pint in Cork’s Hi-B bar, the young barman catches my eye.

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“No phones, please,” he says.

He’s polite and earnest. I’m ashamed. But better late than never. I take my pint and coat and go sit at the bar.

Then the conversations start. About the No Phones rule (“Brian, the owner, has thrown about seven phones out that window,” I’m told). About the bar, the sole surviving portion of a hotel that seems to have faded into folklore around it. About the state of theatre in Cork. About the book you could write based solely on chats had at this curving counter over a couple of weeks.

To my right is a half-drunk glass of wine with a beer mat balanced on top, signalling that its owner will be back. To my left, a pair of Cork hurling fans are banging back pints and peanuts (Limerick have just been put to the sword; and they’re giddy). The whole bar is the size of your sitting room, but it feels like anything could happen.

Later, tweeting a photo of my pint with a little explanation attached, I’m pulled down a Rebel City rabbit hole.

“I was thrown out for having the same coat as one of the barmaids,” one customer tells me. “Brian asked me to leave because I was laughing too loud,” claims another, referring to its legendary owner, Brian O’Donnell.

Plenty have been scolded or ejected for phone offences. Others told off for reasons as random as ordering a Coke (“He pointed to McDonald’s out the window...”), asking for change (“This is the Hi-B, not AIB”), or for no apparent reason at all.

Getting barred from this bar is a badge of honour in Cork, it turns out. I got off lightly, leaving after a single visit to the stinking cave that is its ‘gents’, and without meeting Brian (“He always had us quaking in our shoes, but we loved it,” says another).

However, stepping onto Oliver Plunkett Street, on a quiet Sunday night, I wonder how long the Hi-B will last. It feels like a time capsule, a lost space destined to be replaced by a generic restaurant or café.

“It’s one of the last places where people still talk to each other,” as another nostalgic fan describes it.

This isn’t a column bemoaning phones. Screens are part of us now; that’s just life (the Hi-B is one of those places that makes a mockery of analysis, anyway).

Nope, for me, this is just a little wake-up call. A barman’s gentle intervention serving as a reminder that, every now and then, we need to be nudged out of our screens and into our senses.

Not a bad life lesson, for the price of a pint.

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