Letter from Korea, March 2011

Suwon, South Korea


Dear Ireland


Saint Patrick’s Day came and went. In Seoul there was probably one of the biggest and best Saint Patrick’s festivals in the Irish Association of Korea’s history, or so I was told. Thanks to these efforts there is a chance more people know more about Ireland here in Korea.

For me, Saint Patrick’s Day has always been symbolic. When I first arrived in Korea in 2005 it was the day before Paddy’s Day. I was so happy to be out of Ireland. The day itself had always been a wonderful day to reinforce any stereotypes which might exist about the Irish. Of course outside Ireland most of the people who celebrate the day aren’t Irish so you can expect stereotypes to abound, but in Ireland I was always disappointed by Ireland’s national day. I’m not the only one who could do without the majority of the population reinforcing the global stereotype, but you can’t have everything your way.

In Korea I ended up at the IAK’s famous hooley – a piss up with unlimited Guinness and unlimited numbers of people trying to get this Guinness at the same time. I can’t remember much of what happened but I do remember that I was properly introduced to Itaewon culture that night and I had my first experience of taking the subway home after a night of revelry. Some would say I never looked back.

Three years later I met with a guy called Keith Morrison who was chairman of the IAK and he asked me to help out on the music side of things, me having worked with the HBC Fest for two years before. I gladly accepted the offer and from then I was, for all intents and purposes, hooked.

Last year I turned up about a week after arriving in Korea and ended up having a significant role helping to finalise several aspects of the parade and festival…I think. This year I was deep in the middle of it despite proclaiming that I only wanted a small role – I will learn to keep my mouth shut in future years.

But what bothers me the most about Saint Patrick’s Day is not the stereotyping. It is not the mindless drinking. It is not the wearing of the green. It is not the overuse of Irishisms and plastic Paddy’s slapping each other on their back celebrating their great-grand aunt twice removed who had a friend from Kildare. In fact, these days I quite like these aspects, to a certain extent. I enjoy seeing people getting drunk for Ireland’s sake. I salute them and also cheer, hip-hip-hooray for Ireland, or something to that effect. What bothers me is something that has really only come to the forefront since I arrived in Korea.

Korea is a country that suffered under the rule of their neighbours for many years. There is the much documented colonisation by Japan during the first half of the twentieth century, and there are also the cultural and political influences from China which had a lot of influences on Korean society than many would probably admit.

Likewise Ireland has its own much documented rule by the British which lasted over seven hundred years. To an extent this is still the case today if you are to ignore the resolutions of the Good Friday Agreement which altered the shape of modern Ireland for future generations.

These two countries both experienced very difficult histories thanks to the rule imposed by their neighbours. Both deal with their history differently.

One country proudly celebrates its nationality with no fewer than three national holidays that celebrate independence, the constitution, and liberation. There is also a holiday, Foundation Day, that celebrates the founding of the state, and Memorial Day which is in honour of all the people who died in military service or as part of the independence movement. This is an impressive celebration of one nations own existence and the struggle to achieve this.

The other country celebrates its nationality through the feast day of an uncanonised Saint who reportedly was a womaniser and fond of a drink. This same Saint has more legends attached to him than a book of Irish Myths and Legends. There is no mention of the people who fought to bring independence to the country, or the constitution (despite how flawed it may be), or the years and years of oppression that includes a famine that was poorly managed and resulted in over 1.5 million people dying or leaving the country in the space of five years, no mention of the religious oppression, the stealing of lands, the forced emigration, and the genocide at the hands of Cromwell.

Yes, Saint Patrick’s Day does typify Ireland and Irishness – having a big party for a completely unsupportable reason, in this case a Saint’s feast day. But, surely Ireland should take its nose out of England’s arse and declare some holidays in honour of Ireland and its independence. Ireland should honour the people who made our country – with the exception of DeValera, he as was a prick.

This is not a call to stand beside the sinners and celebrate Bobby Sands and the like. This is a call to accept and celebrate our history and the fine people who made the country we enjoy today. If our neighbours have a problem then they will have to take it because they started it!

I’m not overly patriotic. I am not a flag waving republican. I do not go to the GPO and pray for the souls of the fallen whilst sticking my fingers in the bullet holes. In fact it wasn’t long ago that I despised Ireland and Irishisms. But that has changed.

I have come to the conclusion that Ireland is the best. Not because it is a wonderful place full of fairytales and wonders, or any other nonsense you might be led to believe. I now know that Ireland is the best because everywhere else is a hell of a lot worse. It sounds mad but it’s the truth, or at least it’s the truth as I see it.

Perspective, of course, influences belief considerably.

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