Hoisting a glass, saving a soul

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Hoisting a glass, saving a soul

Last year, when the news spread about a St. Patrick’s Day parade kicking off in Myeong-dong, the very center of downtown Seoul, many people watched the event develop with curiosity. Koreans asked one another: What is that? Expats wondered: An Irish parade in Korea?

But the all-green parade, led by 45 members of the U.S. Army marching band, was a great success. More than 300 people, including some 200 Irish men and women, turned up to celebrate the day. They all asked the same question: How did this all begin in Korea anyway?

The organizer behind the ambitious parade was one Irishman, Peter Ryan, 35, who came to Korea in August 2000 as the first secretary of the Irish Embassy. Sitting at a Starbucks coffee shop in Myeong-dong one day in late autumn a year and a half ago, Mr. Ryan and his wife Teresa noticed the stage in front of Migliore, a big shopping center along the main street. It was a great location. “But when I first mentioned the idea of having a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Korea,” Mr. Ryan said, “no one said it would be possible.”

But one telephone call made the difference. The first call he made was to the U.S. Army., which regularly takes part in St. Patrick’s Day parades all over the world. Within five months, shamrock-clad lovers of all things Irish were marching down the streets of Korea.

Thanks to the success of the parade last year, planning for the St. Patrick’s Day parade 2002 has been a smooth ride. This year, the U.S. Army marching band will be joined by the Seoul Police band, an all-girl band from Lotte World and a Korean traditional percussion samulnori band, and the number of participants is expected to reach about 1,000.

The parade will take place in Itaewon this Sunday at 2 p.m. Led by the Irish-American Tom Coyner, the 50-member organizing committee includes not only people of Irish descent living in Korea, but also some 20 young Korean university student volunteers who are interested in learning more about Irish culture and in raising awareness for Irish charities and social services in Korea.

Mr. Ryan hopes the success of the Sunday parade will lead a Korean samulnori band to participate one day soon in the Dublin parade and the New York parade, the largest St. Patrick’s day parade in the world.

In the words of the ambassador of Ireland, Paul Murray: “I’d like to extend ceid mile failte, a hundred thousand Irish welcomes to our friends - both expats and Koreana - as we prepare to celebrate St. Patrick’s day."


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In 1933, Columban missionaries first came to Korea. At that time, nine missionaries had already left their home in Ireland and were heading to China, the first country in Asia where the Columbans began their missionary work, but then Bishop Edward Galvin, an Irish member of the order based in Brooklyn, said, “I think the society ought to look for some other field in which to work.”

That “other field” became the Land of the Morning Calm, according to the small handbook “60 Years of Korean Missionary” written by Father Donal O’Keeffe (his name is Oh Gi-baek in Korean), chief of the current Missionary Society of St. Columban in Korea.

Almost seven decades later, there are now about 80 Columban men and women working on the frontiers of the human rights movement, both directly and indirectly, far from their home.

The Irish clergy, along with building churches, came to Korea and devoted their missionary work to helping the urban poor, factory workers, lepers, farmers, alcoholics, gamblers - any deprived soul that society turned its back on.

The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition met with Mr. O’Keffe and Kevin O’Rourke from the Missionary Society of St. Columban, one of the first Irish communities to be set up in Korea.


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Reaching out to the disadvantaged brings a full and satisfying life

By Park Soo-mee
Staff Writer

Father Donal O’Keffe is a provincial of the order of the Missionary Society of St. Columban who came to Korea in the late 1970s. For 10 years after his arrival in Korea, he worked for the Labor Mission in Incheon, a desolate factory area outside of Seoul. There, the missionary ran a two-story shelter, with the ground floor open for people to have meetings.

Long an admirer of liberation theology - a controversial belief that emphasizes the church’s involvement in issues of economic and political justice, especially on behalf of the poor - Mr. O’Keffe originally volunteered to go to Latin America, where the theology originated, after he graduated from a seminary in Ireland. Instead, his superior sent him to Korea, a country no less dangerous for a young, foreign missionary full of enthusiasm.

“I think the first three years were the most difficult time for me to adjust,” he says. “But from a certain moment, everything became very comfortable. Now, I think I can almost sense how the other person feels in the middle of a dialogue.” He almost says that last phrase as a confession that he is no longer “a foreigner.” And it’s true. One of his pleasures in life, he says, is sharing soju with different people at the end of the day. “I like that exchange,” he says.

But even if he fits in socially now, that does not mean he has grown complacent with injustice. Last month, a group of Catholic priests, nuns and Christian followers held the Stations of the Cross - a prayer march traditionally performed during Lent, a 40-day period of penitence leading to Easter.

Part of the march this year included brief stops at institutions that he says symbolize violence in Korean society, such as the War Museum in Itaewon and Yongsan Garrison. The event, which took place a day before U.S. President George Bush’s visit to Korea, was abruptly interrupted by a group of police officers who accused the participants of holding an illegal parade.

Unlike other Roman Catholic priests, many Columban priests don’t wear collars except for Mass. For a Columban father, going collarless is a means of telling others that he is approachable and not above ordinary men.

In times past, many missionary societies drew their members from Western countries - Now, three Korean lay missionaries from the Columbans are being sent to Ireland to do missionary works in local parishes.

It’s a radical change considering that missionaries in the past were typically dispatched from European countries to underdeveloped places, often enforcing Eurocentric views on the locals, accusing their traditions to be “pagan” or “primitive,” eventually colonizing their way of life to the locals.

“Now, we think of missionary work more as an exchange between churches,” Father O’Keffe says. He reads aloud article 103 of the mission statement of the St. Columbans: “Striving to have the kingdom of God permeate the lives and cultures of all peoples we proclaim the universal message of salvation through witness, ministry and dialogue from the standpoint of solidarity with the poor.”

For someone who worked in the labor mission for 10 years, he knows things that many other priests don’t. “You know how to stop the cranes?” asks Mr. O’Keffe from the guest lounge of the St. Columban’s parsonage in Donam-dong, northern Seoul. “You just sit in front of the machine. They can’t run over us because the drivers would go to jail if they hurt somebody.”


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From Yeats to Young-un: Priest finds poetic energy

By Joe Yong-hee
Staff Writer


Soon after arriving in Korea in 1964, Father Kevin O’Rourke heard about the first Irish person in Korea - a shipping magnate based in Andong, Manchuria, at the end of the 19th century with ties to the peninsula. Mr. O’Rourke, 62, looked around for more information, clues, anything. The search led to a deadend, but didn’t get him down - for Mr. O’Rourke, the fun is in the searching.

Mr. O’Rourke came to Korea as a member of the Ireland-based Columban priests and is now an English translator of Korean literature and a professor of English literature at Kyung Hee University.

The decision to come to Korea was simple; in the spring of 1964, his superiors handed him a slip of paper with “Seoul, Oct. 1, good luck” written on it. “They presumed I knew where Seoul was,” says Mr. O’Rourke. Chopin plays on the stereo in his living room. Books are piled on a coffee table, newspapers on the sofa, more books by an end table. An open door reveals a custom-built library crammed with more books - from “The Life of W.B. Yeats” to “Nine Cloud Dreams.”

In order to immerse himself in the language and culture, the then young priest took Korean classes at Yonsei University. As he became fluent, he started reading and translating Korean poetry. Eventually, Mr. O’Rourke received a Ph.D. in Korean literature at Yonsei University. A book of 600 sijo poems he translated will be published by Harvard University Press this summer. “Korean literature has given me great pleasure over the years,” he says.

Mr. O’Rourke leans forward and recites lines from “Looking for the Cow,” by Han Yong-un. When he’s finished, he says, “Korean poets are Confucius in ideology, but Zen is at the heart of their poetry.”

When Mr. O’Rourke arrived in Korea, there were about 150 Catholic priests and nuns involved in welfare programs on the peninsula. He lived with several other priests in a converted gisaeng (geisha) house in Donamdong. “The pleasures in life were very simple,” he recalls. One of his favorite trips was to take a Land Rover on 24S, a military road with views of the East Sea. At the end of a dangerous drive in low gear, at the top of a lonesome mountain, “Invariably, there was a halmeoni (old woman) there selling miguk maekju (U.S. beer) - six cans of Budweiser. We bought all she had.”

Seoul has changed, but Mr. O’Rourke’s mind hasn’t. “In my mind, there are peach blossoms flying in the wind and yangban (aristocrats) walking with lame donkeys.”

by Inēs Cho

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