Monday 20 January 2020

John Daly: 'Last orders for a legend of a barman'


Brian O’Donnell
Brian O’Donnell

John Daly

'Be your own man.' Such is the guidance frequently imparted from parents and wise elders to the budding adult - but sadly a counsel often forgotten when the hurly-burly of life, love and mortgages takes over.

A fortunate few do manage to never forget this instruction, and one of them passed away in Cork last week. Brian O'Donnell, owner of the Hi-B bar, was an individual richly deserving of the 'eccentric' label - but one to which he also incorporated additional emotional states - including tempestuous, cranky, curmudgeonly and wise. In his cosy second-floor hostelry overlooking the city centre, the man who loved Mahler and hated mobile phones ran his one-room empire with the generosity of George Bailey and wrath of Genghis Khan.

It is the kind of place visitors to the city are always taken as an introductory primer in local eccentricity seasoned with old-school manners. A tattered sign behind the counter offered the proprietor's golden rule of hospitality: 'The floggings will continue until morale improves.' For the summertime squads of Lonely Planet gawkers and TripAdvisor seat blockers, said sign was a giggle wrapped in a warning.

Please log in or register with for free access to this article.

Log In

A Swedish gent clutching a guide book ordered a pint recently, sat by the fire, bothering nobody. It being a chilly day, he quietly added a shovel of coal to the fading embers. With that, Brian emerged from behind the bar, lifted the visitor's pint and took a decent swallow. "Your pint for my coal - a fair exchange," he smiled. Another occasion saw a smartly dressed solicitor proffer a €50 note in payment for a single pint, only to be informed: "The sign over the door reads Hi-B, not AIB, if you please."

Well I remember asking for a coffee one badly hungover afternoon, only to be told: "This is a public house, sir, not some backstreet café in Bucharest!"

On hearing of his passing, a Canadian student at UCC who worked evenings in the Hi-B eloquently encapsulated the climatic dispositions of its owner: "There are only two moods that Brian ever experiences - one is charismatic, charming, highly intelligent. The other is dark, fierce and bombastic. For those that have been offended, you have been touched by the Mr Hyde of the Hi-B; those of you who have laughed experienced Mr Jekyll. I was fired and hired by both these men at least once a week in a two-year span."

For the modern-day publican, staggering under the weight of health regulations, fire ordinances and PC mandates gone mad, Brian never forgot that youthful advice - "Be your own man" - wearing it daily as part of his lively and temperamental character like the rest of us don a shirt and tie.

A neighbouring publican at the funeral admitted that "we all admired what he did, but most of us wouldn't have the courage to do it. He ran the Hi-B the way he wanted to, whether you liked it or not."

And yet, for all the grump and irascibility so frequently on display, there was generosity revealed to the chosen few. Brian had a soft spot for nurses, one of them my girlfriend.

"We both toil with the worst of life, poorly paid and undervalued," he'd tell her. "The reward is doing it well." As an epitaph for a colourful legend of the bar, it summed him up perfectly.

Saoirse standing so tall in 'Little Women'

If you're like me, the cinema will be calling loudly on St Stephen's Day.

After the turkey, the family and the walk up a hill, there's nothing better than quality entertainment in the flickering dark. Top of my list is the latest screen adaptation of 'Little Women', with Saoirse Ronan playing the pivotal role of Jo March. Every year this gifted 25-year-old moves ever closer to winning a Best Actress Oscar - and this performance could be the one that does it. You go, girl!

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss