I regard the Hi-B bar to be a family gem. It must be treasured, jealously guarded and passed down the generations. Established in 1923 and originally named The Hibernian, my father must have been a patron of this establishment since its first beginnings. He was born in 1897 and spoke fondly of his time spent here, sometimes before and after a visit to Cork opera house. In the 1930’s he moved to England with the Ford motor company but a visit to the Hi-B was a mandatory part of our annual summer pilgrimage back to Cork.
The Hi-B is situated on the first floor of the junction of Oliver Plunket Street with Winthrop Street. It provides a pleasant bird’s eye view of the comings and goings of this busy part of the city, with a large post office on the opposite side of street. The discrete entrance gives an initial hint of what this establishment is about. It is not looking for passing trade. You have to know exactly where it is and then ascend a foreboding flight of stairs. Standing on the first floor landing you could be in a boarding house or home to a collection of sole traders such as insurance brokers, solicitors, accountants, turf accountants (their entrance exams are harder) and recruitment agencies. If you keep your nerve and open the door to your right you will discover this beautifully small but perfectly proportioned bar.
The clientele has always been mixed, quirky and bohemian. I think this was more exaggerated in the Church-repressed Ireland of the 1970’s and before. The older generation never spoke about this but I get the impression the Hi-B was a place where the patricians of society, with a liking for drink and fun, would go to escape. This arrangement seemed to work well even though the Hi-B was never exclusive or snobby.
Brian O’Donnell is the changeable, iconic proprietor. He took over the business from his parents, the founders of the feast. Some might say he can be grumpy but I’m sure he has had put up with a lot over the years. My first memory of Brian was when I was about 8 or 10 years old, in the early 1960’s. My parents, sisters and I entered the bar just after noon. Brian was accompanied by just one customer. He was dressed in the best of golfing attire – check trousers, V-neck sports jumper and roll neck sweater. However, he was in no state to play golf, being in an advanced state of inebriation. (Note: I realise that being drunk at noon is generally a sad state of affairs and not to be condoned but in situations like this I think of what Lord Byron once wrote “And if I laugh at any mortal thing ‘tis that I may not weep”).
The golfer asked Brian to order him a taxi. After a few minutes a rather agitated taxi driver ran up the stairs, stuck his head in the door and announced himself - “taxi!” He was probably double parked on the busy street outside and anxious to get going. Still seated, the golfer slowly turned to address him and eventually said:-
“I’ll be with you ……..in…………..three ………… hours.”
The taxi driver said nothing and immediately ran down the stairs, hotly pursued by the then nimble Brian, who, no doubt, had to compensate him for his troubles. No wonder Brian can be a little grumpy if he has had to put up with more than 50 years of that.
As was my inherited duty, some forty years later I introduced my daughters to the Hi-B at lunch time. The kids sat at a small round table by the far wall and I went to the bar to order the drinks from Brian. He brought the drinks to me. So far so good. My youngest daughter had asked for a soft drink which came in a bottle. Brian addressed me:-
“Would you ask the little girl…..”
I naively believed he was going to finish his sentence with “if she wants a straw or a glass” but that wasn’t Brian’s way. What he actually said was:-
“to take that chewing gum out of her mouth because I find it quite disgusting.”
I spun around to look in the direction of my daughters and there was the youngest with a large bumble of gum which hid most of her face. We had fallen foul of one of Brian’s famous rules – no bubble gum in the Hi-B! – and were lucky to be still given a drink at all.
Brian recently appeared in a TV documentary entitled “The Seven Wonders of Cork”, one of which he delivered whilst in the Hi-B. It went as follows:-
“You can tell a Cork man but you can’t tell him anything.”
This is a handy insight for the first time visitor to Cork, and to the Hi-B in particular. It is better to listen than to talk. Let the lilting Cork accents flow over and around you. If you are lucky you will hear a first class exposition of the conversational construct of “Boy”, in the Cork vernacular - “How’s it going Boy?” etc.
So that’s the Hi- B, my favourite Cork city pub.
I would recommend it to you but, as I said in my introduction, I’m a bit possessively jealous of the place and it’s getting far too popular.
PS: For more stuff about second generation wannabe Irish people who view Ireland, not just Cork, with rose-tinted glasses check out my website:- danielmdoyle.com