No blarney: Korea and Ireland have a lot in common

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No blarney: Korea and Ireland have a lot in common

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Irish Ambassador Eamonn McKee addresses hundreds gathered at the embassy’s celebration hosted at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in central Seoul last Thursday ahead of St. Patrick’s Day on Sunday. Also attending was Irish Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar, third from left. By Park Sang-moon

As an estimated 80 million Irish around the world prepared to celebrate on Sunday, the Embassy of Ireland in Seoul was hosting a week of events to commemorate St. Patrick’s Day and 30 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Hundreds celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland’s National Day, a wee bit early on Thursday with music, dance and food hosted by the Irish Embassy at the Grant Hyatt Hotel, central Seoul.

This year is even more significant as it marks 60 years since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, in which hundreds of Irish soldiers were killed, and 80 years since the first Columban priests arrived in Korea, said Irish Ambassador Eamonn McKee, who spoke to the Korea JoongAng Daily on Wednesday at the embassy. He said the two countries have much in common historically and expressed his hopes for future exchanges through the EU-Korea free trade agreement as well as political and cultural interaction.

“It takes an inordinate amount of creativity and patience to solve conflicts,” said the ambassador who has worked for 20 years on the peace process involving Northern Ireland. McKee pointed out there are lessons for Korea terms of cooperation between the governments in Belfast and Dublin.

“It’s interesting to consider this model in parallel with the much talked about Berlin model, and in some ways I think both are complimentary,” he said.

“If our history shapes us, then the national narratives of Ireland and Korea certainly echo each other,” said McKee. “You have two small countries surrounded by big neighbors, both colonized, we by the British, Korea by Japan. We both won our independence in the 20th century, ours in 1922 and Korea in 1945, both countries were partitioned. Both countries were largely rural up until quite recently and then economically made a huge amount of process. But despite the economic progress and urbanization of our populations, we still retain social connections from our rural village culture.”

“Korean nationalists and intellectuals during the Japanese annexation period were very interested in the Irish struggle for independence, just as indeed Japanese officials were very interested in the British experience of dealing with Ireland.”

While he wants to see more government-to-government exchanges, he emphasized the central importance of “people-to-people” exchange.

The Irish Associations of Korea, the Korean Society of Ireland and the Irish Embassy kicked off the week of celebration with a photo exhibition, “History and Vitality: Stories of Ireland and Korea,” at the Korea Foundation Cultural Center Gallery which runs through March 28.

The St. Patrick’s Day celebration also was attended by special guest Leo Varadkar, minister for transport, tourism and sport of Ireland, who arrived in Seoul on Wednesday and met with the minister for patriots and veterans affairs of Korea, Irish businesses and Korean partners, and attended a finance forum.

“The interesting thing about St. Patrick’s Day is that wherever it’s celebrated, it tends to be influenced by where it’s being celebrated,” said McKee. “For example, if you look at the New York parade, the main contingents will be the New York Police Department, the fire brigade, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and Irish cultural and dancing groups, reflecting the Irish-American experience there.

“Here, the festival is put on by the Irish Association of Korea, mainly by the people who are over here teaching English, they tend to be in their mid-20s to early 30s and, of course, they are introducing Ireland to Korea for the first time with such events as Irish story-telling, culture and food.” About 900 Irish reside in Korea, he said.

The ambassador said the Embassy of Ireland, the Irish Association of Korea and the Somme Association of Northern Ireland will erect a monument to all those of Irish birth and heritage who died in the Korean War that will be dedicated at a ceremony next month attended by British Commonwealth veterans of the war, including 14 Irish-born veterans who fought with soldiers from the United Kingdom, Australia and United States. The monument will be at the War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan District, central Seoul.

“Because Ireland was not a member of the United Nations in 1950 when the war broke out, we could not officially be a part of the UN contingent here,” said the ambassador.

The ambassador notes this will be his last St. Patrick’s Day in Seoul as he wraps up his four-year post in July and heads to Jerusalem.


By Sarah Kim [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]
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