Letter from Korea, February 2011

Suwon, South Korea


Dear Ireland

Recently I’ve been in touch with the Irish Ambassador to Korea, Dr. Eamonn McKee. There is a feeling among some of the Irish people I know here that he is keen to promote Ireland’s brand image in an effort to attract attention to Ireland. Despite Ireland’s fame around the world, and especially in English-speaking countries, Ireland is practically unheard of in Korea. If you mention Ireland to your average Korean in the street there is a chance that they will either confuse it with Iceland or smile and nod, the international gesture of change the question before you embarrass me more.


Dr. McKee’s efforts are necessary. Bad news travels fast and with the recent IMF and ECB involvement in Ireland’s economy impressions of Ireland can’t be good. While many in Ireland may say that this is rightly so, there can be few who disagree that a good public image is needed if Ireland is to attract investment – which leads to jobs – from abroad.


It’s reassuring from a personal perspective to have someone who I can approach who doesn’t shy from interacting with the minions like myself. He even bought me dinner and listened to my opinion – this doesn’t happen to often in Korea.


The lack of public knowledge about Ireland doesn’t help, especially if people are thinking of a country to visit so they can study English. It also doesn’t help stigmas against Irish people, one of which is Ireland’s connection with terrorism, a story that my few words of Korean do a poor job of telling. The long and complicated history doesn’t help matters either even if I’m lucky enough to be asked to explain it in English. If I wanted to explain the difficulty to a Korean person I could ask them to give me a history of North and South Korean relations in 150 words or less – a cruel but effective method which I have yet to try.


That being said, I don’t think that country-by-country knowledge by the average Korean – if such a thing exists – is that high. Generally speaking, people don’t seem to know too much about places outside of their immediate sphere. This is especially the case for elementary school students who spend plenty of time learning about the wonders of Korea and its influence around the world. Geography is not studied as widely as it is in Ireland. Neither is history, especially world history. But then again, they do teach the kids how to peel a potato properly, and I know which knowledge has been more useful for me over the years.


The reason I was in touch with the ambassador was because of the relationship between Ireland and Korea, and the history between the two countries. I am quite interested in both countries international relationship for a number of reasons. Firstly I’m Irish in Korea, secondly my wife is Korean, and thirdly, and most important of all, one of these days we will have children who will be both Irish and Korean. History is a great way to understand a person’s background. In my case it shows where do we stand on the ladder of the history between Ireland and Korea. Right now we stand pretty low down, regardless of how long the ladder is but we’re on it somewhere.


It’s clear from the current research that most Irish-Korean relations are contemporary. The majority of the five-hundred or so Irish people in Korea are on E2 teaching visas, then there are the missionaries, and a few people involved in business – last time I heard there was ten or twelve people in the Irish Chamber of Commerce in Korea. Previous to the year 2000 there can’t have been that many more living here, and the same can be said for most nationalities possibly with the exception of Canadians.


The research I’m referring to isn’t exactly what you would term precise. The Irish embassy carried out some research into the history of Irish people in Korea. Here’s what they have to say about the first Irish person to be officially registered in Korea:

“The first reliable recorded account of an Irish presence in Korea dates from 1893 when John Mc Leavy Brown was appointed by King (later Emperor) Kojong as Financial Adviser and Chief Commissioner of Customs. Brown was born in Magheragall, Lisburn, Co. Antrim on 27 November, 1835. He was educated at Queen’s College, Belfast and Trinity College Dublin. Brown joined the British Customs Service in 1873 and from 1874 spent nineteen years in what is today’s China, serving in Shanghai, Guangdong and Taiwan. He remained head of Customs in Korea until 1905. “

This doesn’t point to a long and illustrious history for Irish people in Korea. It should be mentioned that Korea was only first recorded by European explorers 1595, and was made famous as the ‘The Hermit Kingdom’ – a land where people were not allowed to enter or leave.


This changed with the Great Game. Korea was lodged between an emerging Japan, a declining China and an aggressive Russia, not to mention a target for the Great Powers to attempt to exploit. The French occupied Ganghwado at the mouth of the Han River in 1866 followed by an American expedition in 1871. The British had a naval base on a group of islands between Jeju and the mainland for a number of years – more on this later.


In the twentieth century Irish-Korean relations started to develop stronger, but only on an individual level, or as individuals as part of a larger organisations. Missionaries, without a doubt, are the best example of this.


Irish Columban missionaries first arrived in Korea in the 1930s and a number were killed during the Korean War. There is still a significant body of priests who still live and work in Korea. Perhaps the most famous is Kevin O’Rourke who was the first foreigner to be awarded a doctorate from a Korean university. More importantly, he has been lauded as the most significant translator of Korean literature into English. While his work is unique, the rest of the work done by the hundreds of other missionaries who have given their lives and devoted it to Korea, working with families and in the community, cannot be overlooked. I’ve met a number of them and you would hardly know that they were priests, just normal ould fellas wandering around Seoul with perfect Korean – accent and all.


During the Korean War 128 members of the Royal Ulster Rifles lost their lives, as well as a number of Irish serving in the U.S., Australian, New Zealand and possibly Canadian armies. Their efforts have been recognised by the Irish president and Minster for Foreign Affairs, and a number of monuments stand for the fallen.


These efforts all took place long before diplomatic relations were established between Ireland and Korea. This happened in 1983, almost one hundred years after the first recorded Irishman arrived. But I wonder, really, who was the first Irishman in Korea? Was it some government official? Was it a wandering missionary? Was it a conscript in the French or British navy?


Well, it’s likely it was. As I mentioned earlier, the British occupied a small group of islands north of Jeju called Komundo. From 1885-87 the British navy used the island as an outpost to check possible incursions from the Russian navy. It was believed that at one stage this was a considerable outpost in the east for the British and the closest base that the empire held to Japan, which was neutral at the time.


I’ve always wondered about Komundo, or Port Hamilton as it was known in those days. There’s a small cemetery where those who have died over the years on or close to the island are buried. It is here that I want to look for evidence of the first recorded Irishman in Korea.


The Marmot’s Hole has a decent report on a trip to Komundo a few years ago, and includes some interesting revelations. Notably there is a report of the antics of a certain Private Peter Ward who was stationed there with the Royal Marines. Taken from a dissertation on the subject of Komundo and Britain it is reported that:

“Naval life on Komundo was also extremely dull. After the Afghan crisis was resolved in September 1885 the threat from Russia faded away, leaving the garrison to carry out a monotonous routine interspersed with occasional ship visits and shore leave to Nagasaki or Shanghai. Apart from a tennis court for the officers, there were few recreational facilities. One enterprising Japanese attempted to resolve this problem in June 1886 by bringing five prostitutes to Sodo, across the harbour from the garrison, and establishing a somewhat ramshackle brothel. He originally claimed to be “drying fish” but word quickly spread amongst the marines of his true purpose. Late at night on 18 June two boats stealthily set out to cross the harbour. However, one overturned and the marines’ cries quickly drew the garrison’s attention. Captain Gordon, commander of the marines, found eleven of the miscreants, but a twelfth, Private Peter Ward, remained missing. It turned out that the unfortunate Private could not swim and was carrying “a considerable weight of silver dollars in his pocket”. He was assumed to have drowned, and a five-dollar reward was offered for the Korean who found his body.”

*If you would like you can read the entire dissertation on the history of Port Hamilton during the nineteenth century here

*Here are some wonderful old photographs of Port Hamilton during the British occupation – do you recognize any faces?


The family name Ward has both an English and Irish background. In Ireland it translates as Mac an Bhaird, son of the bard, which originates in County Galway. It’s also quite popular in parts of county Meath where I come from, although being in The Pale this may have English origins – or it might not. Regardless, there’s more to consider.

Why would I consider that Peter Ward was an Irishman serving with the Royal Marines out in the furthest reaches of Asia? Unfortunately the resources available to me only allow me to speculate.

According to statistics on British army recruitment, especially during the nineteenth century, there were a disproportionate number of Irish regulars enlisted in the British army. In 1885 the rate was about 25% of enlisted men. This was in the army; there are no figures for the navy or the marines. Considering the majority of action seen by the British military towards the end of the nineteenth century was in minor scuffles in outlying colonies, and policing trade routes and economic interests, it can be assumed with certainty that the marines were as a large a force as the army. And if the same rate of recruitment was in the army as was in the marines (which probably was more lucrative – travel the world, go to hot and exotic places, catch diseases you’ve never caught before) then it is likely that at least 25% of the marines were of Irish background too.

Also consider the tradition of recruitment to the British military. While there is a tradition of Irish military units – Irish Guards, Royal Ulster Rifles, Dublin Fusiliers – that same tradition runs strong in the navy and marines. It was less than one hundred years before that the majority of Irish troublemakers found themselves sentenced to serving in the navy after committing a crime  . It wasn’t until Australia was utilized as a penal colony that the navy ceased to be as important an outpost for criminals who wished – or were forced – to reform.

Peter Ward is a name in a story that stands out. It is a name that is instantly associated with Ireland, with the tradition of recruitment, the large proportion of Irish in the British military, but more importantly for me, it’s the anecdote that describes the way he lost his young life. Not in the heat of battle or serving the empire or the church, not educating young English enthusiasts or defending the country from communist oppression.

He was a young man posted to a distant island in the middle of an unknown sea with several months’ salary and nowhere to spend it. He drowned as an overzealous but unprepared participant in a rogue marine operation – to cross the bay to where the ladies lay waiting with legs spread. Or so the story says. The first recorded Irishman, probably, died looking for a ride.

2 thoughts on “Letter from Korea, February 2011

  1. More so than my post on Port Hamilton, these posts will probably be of more interest to you:



    Also, regarding Sir John McLeavy Brown, he left a bigger impact on Seoul than many realize. He was highly involved in the urban planning of modern Seoul, including developing the city’s first modern park, Pagoda Park, and was responsible for building the imposing Western-style Seokjojeon Hall of Deoksugung Palace. As a side note, he was appointed to his position as head of the Korean Customs by Sir Robert Hart, the head of the Chinese Imperial Customs Service and a fellow Irishman.


  2. I’m not that interested in churches, it’s the human element is what attracts me, especially the Columbans. I was thinking I might write something about them later.

    That’s interesting about Sir McLeavy Brown, part of Korea’s first ‘opening up’ to foreigners.

    For me the story about Private Ward was too hard to ignore and the calamity was enough to right a song about. By labeling someone of Sir Mc Leavy Brown’s stature as the first Irishman in Korea seemed a little too typical for me. Of course there’s a bigger chance that Private Ward wasn’t Irish. If I had the time and resources I’m sure I could research it properly.

    Further to this, I read that dissertation on Port Hamilton by Julian Coy and in the early stages a name popped up several times, Sir Nicholas Roderick O’Connor – certainly more Irish sounding, and Roscommon where he comes from is as Irish as they get. This is what Wikipedia says: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_Roderick_O'Conor. This places him in Korea a year before Sir McLeavy Brown, although his legacy doesn’t still stand as clearly in the city today.

    While I was researching this article I left out some more important information because it took away from the story I wanted to tell. I’m glad I have the opportunity to elaborate on it.

    Before the British occupied Komundo there were French, American and Japanese expeditions to Korea, all of which were centred on Gangwhado. The Japanese effort being the only successful one – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Ganghwa.

    The French (1866) didn’t amount to much but they did take the entire royal library based on Gangwhado back to Paris – it has only recently been agreed to return the treasures to korea: http://rki.kbs.co.kr/english/news/news_In_detail.htm?No=79255.

    I tried to see if there were any Irish in their ranks (not a complete impossibility) but my French isn’t strong enough.

    The American expedition in 1871 is much more interesting – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_expedition_to_Korea.

    17 combatants were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour, the first time in combat overseas. Here is a list of the recipients:
    http://www.history.army.mil/html/moh/korean1871.html – four of whom are accredited to have been born in Ireland. This places them and probably more from the 650 men involved in Korea twenty years before any British customs or diplomatic missions, and almost fifteen years before Private Ward and the rest of his Port Hamilton cronies.

    Another little interesting fact for you while I’m here. The name of one of the officers key to the attack on Gangwhado? Captain Hugh McKee. I wonder if he’s any relation of the Irish Ambassador’s?


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