Partying with the Koreans of the WestA peddler selling Irish sweaters on the streets of Daehangno cinched the deal: The St. Patrick’s Day parade, which is fast becoming an annual tradition in Korea, will be promenading down Daehangno this year, not Itaewon.
“It was like a sign,” says Robert Jackson, first secretary at the Irish embassy, who bought an unbleached wool Aran sweater from the peddler while he and other Guinness Draught Irish Festival Korea committee members were scouting Daehangno as a potential parade site.
Daehangno, in northeastern Seoul, is known for live music, theaters, cultural festivals and alternative film screenings. In warm weather, musicians can be found performing outdoors, as students and young adults mill around. On Sunday, the neighborhood’s main road will be lined with Irish and Korean flags for the annual parade, at 3:30 p.m.
For the past two years, the logical site for the parade has seemed to be Itaewon, which is Expat Central in Seoul. But that’s the very reason it’s being moved, says Tom Coyner, chairman of the festival committee.
“In order for the festival to last a long time, it’s important that local people participate,” said Mr. Coyner, an Irish-American who helped organize St. Patrick’s Day events in Japan when he lived there.
“The festival is no longer for the oeguk-in (foreigners), but for everyone,” he says.
Indeed, a number of Koreans are helping put the parade ― and the week’s other St. Patrick’s Day events ― together.
Jun Byung-keun, the committee’s co-chairman, first heard of the venerable Celtic saint, and the party atmosphere now associated with his name, while living in New York. “There was an Irish guy at the company who never showed up for work on something called St. Patrick’s Day,” Mr. Jun recalls.
When he moved back to Korea, he joined the American Chamber of Commerce, where he met Mr. Coyner. Remembering how much community support there was for Korea Day parades in Los Angeles and New York, Mr. Jun decided to help out.
Though he has yet to visit Ireland, Mr. Jun counts many Irish people as friends. “Their music, their pride in their culture and their history of division remind me of Korea,” he says.
Kim Young-min also sees commonalities between the Irish and Koreans ― who, after all, are sometimes referred to in the West as “the Irish of the East.” Founder of the Korean Yeats Association, Mr. Kim will participate in a Celtic poetry reading Wednesday at the Guinness Bar (see story at left).
“The temperaments of Koreans and Irish are very similar,” says Mr. Kim, a professor in Dongguk University’s English department and a lecturer at Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Ireland. Politically, of course, both countries are divided. And socially, Mr. Kim adds, “They both like to drink a lot.”
The parade is only one of the festivities in the fourth annual festival, which starts tomorrow with a one-act Sean O’Casey comedy at Guinness Bar, and winds up Sunday, March 21 with a “recovery session” and music jam at Soho Bar in Itaewon. In between, at various locations, will be a poetry reading, athletic competition, fundraising and a variety of performances (see other stories on this page for details).
But the biggest event is the parade, which, besides its new location, also boasts the coup of having landed the mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak, as its grand marshal.
In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day began as a religious festival. Families would attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon with dancing, drinking and feasting.
As Irish immigrants began moving to the United States in large numbers after the potato famine of the mid-19th century, St. Patrick’s Day parades became shows of political and cultural strength. Cities and small towns all over the United States hold them every year; the one in New York is the largest in the world, with more than 150,000 marching.
In Korea, Irish Columban priests began making inroads in the 1930s. Ireland and South Korea officially established relations in 1983, and the resident embassy was establihed in 1989. About 10 years ago, the community began celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with a black-tie gala, proceeds going to charities led by the Columban priests and sisters.
There are about 500 Irish citizens living in Korea, most of them English teachers, priests or sisters, according to the embassy. The number of ethnic Irish in the country is much higher, especially if one counts the Irish-American soldiers stationed here.
The first parade was in Myeongdong, in 2001. It was organized by a handful of Irish and Irish-Americans, who enlisted an Australian bagpiper, traditional Irish musicians and step dancers, the U.S. Eighth Army marching band and students from Changwon University. Some 300 people showed up.
Seeing potential, the Korea National Tourism Organization suggested it be moved to a larger venue. The following year it was held in Itaewon, with the addition of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Band and the Lotte World Pipers. It drew around 3,000 people. Other events were held, like a pub crawl and a gala ball, with proceeds going to charity.
For this year’s parade, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Band, Lotte World Pipers, U.S. 2d Infantry Division Army Band, Nongak Band and various university marching bands will join in. It begins at the south end of Daehangno, near Hyewa Station, line No. 4. The parade will be followed by an outdoor concert, or ceilidh, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Mr. Coyner has promised to dye his beard green. Fergus Walsh, another parade organizer, will be wearing his County Mayo team uniform with a two-feet green and white hat and the Irish flag wrapped around him. Kim Young-min has found a green and white Viking hat.
“We’ve always had good people for parties,” Mr. Coyner says. “Now we have some substance ― athletics, poetry, drama. I’m amazed at ourselves.”
March 20, 6:30 p.m.
O’Kim’s Irish Pub, Westin Chosun Hotel
Admission: 50,000 won (of which 10,000 won goes to charity)
Hooley is an Irish term for a dance party. “It’s basically a small event for people to kick up their heels,” festival committee chairman Tom Coyner says. Three bands will perform: Seoul Ceol, playing traditional Irish music; Lina Cullins and her band, with mellow folk music and light rock, and Shaded, with hard rock, grunge and U2 covers.
The first Hooley, in 2002, drew 485 people. Last year’s attracted 515. Organizers are expecting this year’s to max out at 550, “of which 400 will be Irish,” committee co-chairman Jun Byung-gun predicts.
March 13, 20, 21 and 27, 8 p.m.; March 17, 19 and 26, 10 p.m.
The Guiness Bar, near Yaksu Station, lines No. 3 and 6, exit 1.
Admission: 10,000 won
An Irish actor-turned-English-teacher, Bernard Hughes, founded BH Productions for last year’s festivities, putting on a W.B. Yeats play. Last fall, the company staged three one-act comedies in Itaewon. Their St. Patrick’s Day production this year is Sean O’Casey’s “Bedtime Story,” a comedy about a Catholic boy who brings home a decidedly non-Catholic girl. The venue this time is Guinness Bar, near Yaksu Station. The cast is from Canada, Ireland and the United States.
The March 17 show (St. Patrick’s Day itself) will be preceded by free Irish stew at 8 p.m. and, at 8:30 p.m., the Celtic Whispers poetry reading (see story elsewhere on this page). The traditional Irish band Seoul Ceol will perform after the final show on March 27.
March 21, 5 p.m.
Soho Bar in Itaewon
Traditionally, Soho Bar hosts a music jam session on the first and third Sunday of each month, around 7 p.m. This one has been dubbed a winding-down session from the week of St. Patrick’s Day activities. People are welcome to bring their own instruments, or simply sit back and listen.
Irish Sports Day
March 20, 2 p.m.
Dongguk University Stadium, Dongguk University Station, line No. 3
Admission: free to watch Gaelic football, hurling and puc fada
In just two years, the Seoul Gaels have won two Asian championships. This young Gaelic football association was born at a meeting of six people at Itaewon’s Three Alleys Pub in 2002; since then, it’s grown to four teams, two men’s and two women’s. A men’s team won the Derek Brady trophy at the Asian Games in Thailand in 2002; last year, all four teams went to the Asian Games in Hong Kong and returned with three trophies. On March 20, they’ll face a team from Japan in an exhibition match.
Gaelic football has characteristics of football and rugby, but on a bigger field with smaller goals. Touching the ball with the hands is allowed for about four steps, after which it must be manuevered by the feet. The Seoul Gaels will also host a demonstration of hurling, another Irish sport, which is also quite new to Korea; it involves a smaller ball and a hockey-like batting stick, the hurley. Also on the program is puc fada, a long-hit contest with a hurley.
March 17, 8:30 p.m.
The Guiness Bar, near Yaksu Station, lines 3 and 6, exit 1
Admission: 10,000 won
As a student, Kim Young-min found the love poetry of W.B. Yeats so moving that he helped found the Korean Yeats Association in 1991. Mr. Kim, now a professor of English at Dongguk University, will be one of five presenters at “Celtic Whispers,” a St. Patrick’s Day poetry reading organized by Catherine Aquinas McCormick, featuring a small but rich selection of Irish poetry. Mr. Kim will read Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and “The Fiddler of Donney,” and sing “Down by the Calley.” John Redmond will perform a selection from Paul Mercier’s play “Home.” Kevin O’Rourke, a Columban priest, will present “Love of Ireland” by James Stephens and two Korean pieces translated into English. Alison Hannify will read two lighthearted pieces by Rosemary Gallaher, a contemporary Irish poet. Guests who arrive at 8 p.m. will be able to sample Irish stew. A ticket includes admission to “Bedtime Story”afterward (see story on this page).
by Joe Yong-hee