Ambassador’s Message – Fr P.J. McGlinchey in Jeju
9 September 2011
Approaching Jeju City, the main port and town of Jeju island, one could see the town on the low slopes, virtually every building a one story thatched building. The only slate roof belonged to the school. There was no running water and electricity was only being introduced. The poverty was intense and pervasive. This too was a society traumatised by extreme violence. Perhaps as many as 30,000 of the 250,000 inhabitants had been massacred in the 1948-49 anti-communist campaign. As part of the security operation, some 70% of the villages in the mountainous interior were destroyed and their inhabitants driven to live on the coast.
It was into this dire circumstance that Fr P.J. McGlinchey, of the Irish missionary Columban Order, stepped from the ferry in 1954. The Korean War had just come to a close. He was a striking figure, six foot tall with tousled brown hair and a handsome Irish face. While driven by his sense of spiritual mission, Fr P.J. was also an intensely practical man – the two characteristics that the Columban Order looked for in priests and nuns since its origins in 1916. Aside from pastoral care, he took stock of the appalling privations and began a life devoted to employment projects: manufacturing and agricultural undertakings that offered work, skill development and hope to the inhabitants.
Today, when you arrive at Jeju International Airport, it is very difficult to connect what you see with the island that greeted Fr McGlinchey on his arrival. Its busy airport, well-developed roads, fine hotels and a host of golf clubs, combined with the island’s natural beauty, encourages some 6 million visitors to come each year, boosting employment, public income and of course land values.
By the time of my visit to Jeju, Fr McGlinchey had retired some months earlier. My wife and I were accompanied by the new chairman of the Isidore Development Association, Fr Michael Riordan. I would meet Fr McGlinchey at the close of the day. Michael is a burly bearded Dublin man, a veterinary doctor by training. Richard Troughton, from Northern Ireland, runs the stud farm there and is not only passionate about horses but about encouraging links through the horse industry with Ireland.
St Isidore’s has an impressively large dairy and stud farm, which evolved from Fr McGlinchey’s early importation of cattle, pigs and sheep to help the stock and livelihood of the Jeju farmers. Of course, the farm and related business is only a means to an end. Nearby is the old folks home, St Isidore Nursing Home, catering for about 85 people some of whom are bedridden. Down the road is the St Isidore Hospice which can cater for up to 23 patients. The nursing home is supported by the government and the hospice is supported wholly by donations and from income from the profit making Isidore activities – the feed mill and the farm. Both these welfare facilities are run by the Holy Family Sisters – a group formed in Korea by a Paris Foreign Missionary priest. The St. Isidore kindergarten caters for nearly 100 kids – more than the local primary school. The St. Isidore Youth Centre is run by six Salesian Sisters and a lay staff. They cater for over 18,000 young people every year. They run mainly human development programmes which last for two or three days at a time.
Aside from doing business to fund care facilities, St Isdore Farm also hosts a Retreat Centre, run by lay staff and three Benedictine sisters. There is also the Trinity Church which can host 4,000 people at its liturgies; the church is in the shape of a Celtic cross and in impressive edifice at that. There are also nineteen contemplative Sisters of St Claire in the parish. Each year nearly 4,000 people come from the mainland and about 2,500 Jejuites use the retreat facilities. There is also a place of pilgrimage referred to as the Hill of Grace which has life sized figures depicting various events in the life of Christ. From there you wend your way over gentle slopes and woods through the Stations of the Cross, peopled by life-sized and quite striking bronze statues in settings of either natural wood or more elaborate sets of marble and stone. All of the statues were created and caste by a Korean artist, Park Chang Hoon (John).
By the time we got to the natural contemplative lake, twilight was falling. Michael accompanied my wife and me to meet Fr McGlinchey. We were worn out just walking around the Isidore enterprises and undertakings but here he was, after a life of struggle and hard work, benign and welcoming. You could still see in his frame and charisma the younger man who had come to Jeju, a very different place, almost sixty years ago. In his modest office, surrounded by a life-time of mementos, he showed us a surviving example of the blanket his textile factory had produced, modelled on Donegal tweed. The business eventually closed due to competition but over four decades had given employment to some 1,700 Jeju women when jobs on the island were few and far between.
More recently, I visited Happy Valley, some forty minutes north of Seoul, in the company of Andrew Salmon, an expert on the Korean War, and Tom Coyner of the Irish Association of Korea. In January 1951, it was far from a happy place for the Royal Ulster Rifles and Royal Irish Hussars. While pulling back from a Chinese counter offensive moving toward Seoul, they found themselves overrun, struggling to evacuate along a frozen river under fire, tragically and mistakenly illuminated against the ice and snow by flairs dropped from an American plane. As Andrew Salmon told me, more Irish blood was shed here than in any other place during the war. He is best placed to know as the author of To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951 (Aurum Press, London, 2009) and Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950 (Aurum Press, London, 2011). [Check out his website and blog at www.tothelastround.wordpress.com ] Many of the 130 Irish who died with the Royal Ulster Rifles during the War met their end here. No monument marks the spot but some exploratory discussions to that end are underway. Another 29 Irish died fighting with US forces during the war, not to mention countless first generation Irish Americans.
The Irish contribution to the Korea War, like the work of Irish missionaries to Korean society is, for the most part, unsung and unknown. However, I am delighted to say that the Royal Irish Academy has agreed in principle to publish a history of the Irish in Korea. We are only at the outset of the project, with many challenges ahead, including fundraising for the research. However, in addition to retrieving and recording the contribution of the Irish, it will be an important work that will strengthen and deepen Irish Korean relations.
In the meantime, at this thanksgiving weekend, we can spare a thought for the many Irish who have made a noble and distinctive contribution to Korea. For more information on the story of the Irish here, check out our brief survey at the Embassy website under the heading ‘Relations between Ireland and South Korea’ (www.embassyofireland.or.kr ).