[TRADING PLACES] Irish people find Korea just as welcoming as home
Once dubbed the “Island of Saints and Sages” by Irish novelist James Joyce, Ireland has produced timeless writers and missionaries, some of whom sailed across the oceans to Korea.
Julian Clare: I have been struck by the depth of the connections between Korea and Ireland since arriving here in August. In December, I had the pleasure of going to Gwangju for the launch of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Catholic religious order the Columban order, in which many Irish men and women have given decades of service in Korea, including Fr. P.J. McGlinchey, who arrived in Jeju in 1954 and is still living there. There are priests and nuns who have spent so long here that Korea has become their home.
Clare: On another occasion, in November, I attended the Daesan Literary Awards and the winner for translation was an Irishman, Kevin O’Rourke, who has the honor of being the first non-Korean to be awarded a Ph.D. in Korean literature in a Korean university. He has won numerous prizes for translating Joseon-era poetry. So this is extraordinary, to have Irishmen and women who came in the ’60s and ’70s who are clearly Irish, yet at the same time you realize their life is Korean, so they live in two cultures. It’s a remarkable thing to see how much this country has changed in their lifetime and how Korea has become their life.
For the ambassador and his family, who just a few months ago started making Korea their new home, the sense of security of the country has surpassed their expectations and made their stay welcome in a short span of time.
Clare: It’s been five months since we got here. As a family we’ve been impressed by the openness and warmth of the country and the sense of personal safety. Our daughters have been recently to the ice rink at City Hall and they plan to go back this weekend, using the metro [subway]. When you are living as a family in a country where the respect for elders and importance of family relations is felt so strongly, you really appreciate that sense of a secure society. It’s a pity that the security challenge regarding North Korea obscures so much about Korea.
Clare: And I think the success and prosperity Korea has enjoyed is something that Irish people recognize — the kindred sense of a country that had to win its freedom and earn its hard-won prosperity. So on multiple levels, we feel an affinity to this country. As it happens, one of the first things we noticed here was the shop name “Innisfree” which is a place, for every Irish person, closely associated with our national poet W.B. Yeats. When I was here a little bit longer, I became aware of the impressive depth of Korean academic research in Yeats.
Andrew Kilbride: Ireland is known as the land of a thousand welcomes, however my first year in Korea seemed like a role reversal. Everywhere I went the local people were so friendly and curious about who I was and where I came from.
Kiss me, I’m Irish
There are some 900 Irish men and women in the country, according to the ambassador. They include Andrew Kilbride and a couple of his friends who came, and in his words, “never really moved back.”
Kilbride: I stumbled upon Korea actually. I went to the National University of Ireland Galway, and by the time I graduated, Ireland was about to enter the economic crash, so the best thing to do was to get out and I had an opportunity to travel as my parents were always telling me to go see the world. So I went to live in South America and the United Arab Emirates for a while with two good friends.
Kilbride: Then we heard from some friends who were in Korea that they really love life here. At the time I didn’t really know much about Korea, other than that Ireland had played here during the World Cup in 2002. So my friends and I came here on a whim, we didn’t think about settling here back then — we said, “Let’s travel to Thailand and Southeast Asia and then up into Russia and Siberia, and go back to Ireland.” That was the idea. But we got to Seoul and then we never left. All three of us fell in love with the culture, the surroundings, the lifestyle and even the working environment. And we all fell in love, too — all of us met our wives here (laughs).
Kilbride has been teaching English here for seven years now.
Clare: For a large number of the Irish community, they’ve come here through the education sector, in teaching English. And when you come to live here, you pick up pretty quickly how much Korea esteems education. In fact, education is one of the central links between Ireland and Korea, as so many of our people come here to teach. Quite a number came during the 2002 World Cup and stayed because they liked it so much. I remember that a colleague of mine when I was stationed in New York, his brother came to Korea during the World Cup and a number of the people he was travelling with stayed and ended up settling down here.
Clare: I think people put down deep roots here through their service in education. It’s a big thing for Ireland and we are very interested in attracting more Korean students to study there. We have around 2,500 Koreans studying in Ireland both in language education and full-time study. One of the perks to studying in Ireland is that you have an opportunity to work while studying, and if you graduate in Ireland with a master’s degree or doctorate, you can work in Ireland for two years without a permit. Ireland hosts a lot of international organizations like Facebook, Google and software and IT companies. We are also very interested in developing relationships with the Korean food sector. We’re both countries that take food safety and quality seriously and when our agriculture minister brought 35 Irish agri-food companies here in November, I know from talking to the companies how impressed they were by Korea and how interested they were in developing business partnerships.
Kilbride leads the Irish Association of Korea, a nongovernmental organization that promotes Korean-Irish cultural exchanges. One of their events this month is the St. Patrick’s Day celebration in central Seoul, organized in the city since 2002.
Kilbride: The association works with the Irish Embassy to organize St. Patrick’s Day here. The festival was held in Sindorim in the last five years and it will be held there, at D-Cube City this year. We expect thousands of Koreans and expats to gather for the festival, which will be falling on a Saturday this year. The festival is an opportunity for Koreans to meet Irish communities and experience some Irish culture through Korean Irish dance troops (Tap Pung being the most famous), kids’ Gaelic football teams (Seoul Gaels Kids), all-Korean traditional Irish music groups (Celtic Asia), storytelling, painting and other forms of arts. We are a small organization but the festival we organize is without a doubt the biggest free expat event throughout the country. I encourage all Koreans to come. I know there will be a celebration down in Busan as well.
Walking in rainy Dublin
Kim Ji-won is one of the thousands of Koreans who studied English in Ireland. She was first introduced to the country through a Korean nun.
Kim Ji-won: I was eager to study abroad and improve my English skills. While searching for a place to learn, a nun whom my mum has known for many years recommended me to study in Ireland. I went there after completing my first year of middle school in Korea and stayed until I completed my undergraduate studies.
Kim: As a student in Ireland, I experienced different perspectives that Irish and Korean people have about education and job market. Like Koreans, Irish students too have grinds and go to institutes to supplement their studies, but they have a more balanced work life. For instance, after college, many of my friends took a gap year to travel or volunteer to teach abroad before entering graduate school or starting work. After I returned to Korea, I was shocked to find out that my friends were primarily focused on getting their qualifications and internship experiences. It motivated me to apply for my internship and pursue my career immediately.
There are some quirks Kim picked up through her nine years of stay in Ireland.
Kim: Irish people are used to saying “Sorry” or “Excuse me.” When I initially came back to Korea, I kept saying sorry, excuse me, when I would make my way through a crowded place. I was shocked to see that people would sometimes push or brush past by me without saying anything. But I see they’re not being rude, it’s just a cultural difference of personal space.
Kilbride: We also, in the countryside, like to wave at everyone on the road while driving.
Clare: Irish people often thank the bus driver when they get off the bus, too. And if you’re on a single-lane road and another driver lets you pass first, then you roll down the window and say…
Kim: Thanks a million!
Clare: That’s right (laughs).
Kim: Another thing I miss from Ireland is how much I could stroll around in Dublin. Whenever I went for a walk in the city, it was easy to see the sky and find quiet places and it was very safe. I also really miss the friendliness of people on the streets, and the weather, of course. It is possible to experience all four seasons in a day in Ireland. The weather changes so fast, so I had to be prepared for rain and wind at any time. I think it’s funny that not many people in Ireland carry an umbrella because they know it will soon be broken and become useless. I did not know it at the beginning, but after sacrificing a number of umbrellas to strong wind, I realized that it would be wiser to just wear a hoodie or rain jacket. After all, rainy and foggy weather has become my favorite type of weather.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]
Irish Ambassador Julian Clare
Ambassador Julian Clare, his wife Siobhan Tracey and their three daughters arrived in Seoul in August. This is his first head of mission assignment, having previously served at Ireland’s Permanent Mission to the UN in New York and its Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels, in Ireland’s Embassy in Moscow, and as its deputy head of mission at its embassies in Bratislava and Tel Aviv. As a family, the Clares enjoy discovering Korean food and culture, as well as walking. They hope to complete the Seoul trail during their time here.
Andrew Kilbride has been an English teacher in Seoul since 2011 and chairman of the Irish Association of Korea, a nongovernmental organization promoting Korean-Irish cultural exchanges. He did not initially expect to stay here so long when he and his two friends came to Seoul in 2011. Kilbride met his wife Suh Myoung-won in Seoul and the two have been married two years; they just had their first child, a boy named Leo. Kilbride says there are quite a number of Irish-Korean couples in Korea. “I know at least 40, and at least eight Irish-Korean kids in these families,” he said. In his spare time Kilbride likes to walk his dogs in the mountain parks.
Kim Ji-won spent most of her youth in Ireland. Attending her first year of middle school in Dublin in 2003, she went on to study European studies at Trinity College, graduating in 2012 and returning to Korea. Kim is currently working at the Unescap East and North-East Asia Office as a communications officer. She previously worked at the Jordanian Embassy in Seoul as a researcher for nearly four years. Fluent in Korean, English, French, Spanish, and Japanese, Kim says she likes watching movies and doing pilates.