St Patrick’s Day Ten Years On


I was in Ireland for Saint Patrick’s Day for the first time in 11 years. That I was not excited about this lends a lot to my own feelings about Saint Patrick’s Day as a day of Irish celebration, which probably isn’t helped by the whole institution of Saint Patrick’s Day around the world. But having been away from Ireland for such a length of time, I think my understanding of my own Irish identity and Irish identity in general have changed.

When I first went to Korea I was 23. I arrived on March 16, 2005, the last time I was in Ireland for Saint Patrick’s Day I was 22. I suppose I just missed the day, and at the time I knew that this was probably for the best. I was no fan of Saint Patrick’s Day back then.

While before I had never really considered its relevance or its connection to me or my Irish identity, something of a sucker punch came when I went into an alehouse I used to frequent. Shrouded in a darkness, the sunlight streamed through the permanent smokiness and silhouetted the pirouettes of stumbling celebrants enthused by A Nation Once Again shaking the very fibres of much strained PA system. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. It was a dubious WTF moment, and one I always remember and attest to an urgent desire to leave the country, and Korea is where I ended up.

My own story in Korea is one littered with its own confusion, in terms of Irish identity. I stumbled upon an Irish party on the days surrounding March 17, and wasn’t too enthusiastic about celebrating my identity then. I settled in to living and found a group of friends who saw a novelty in my Irishness which I tried not to embellish but soon got it into my head that I was the only Irishman in South Korea.

I used to spend a lot of time in Seoul expressing my distaste at my nationality, its failings, and why I was a better person not to be living there any longer. I knew several friends shared similar feelings back in Ireland, so it wasn’t something I was attempting to appear aloof about, at least not on my own anyway.

I wonder though that the longer you spend away, the longer you feel that you to try to find yourself, as opposed to the idea that you’re missing out on something. Mixing with people from around the world from many different backgrounds who proudly exclaim their nationality while you shyly question what is it that makes you stand out from others would have this effect.

Ireland was a very unfamiliar place in Korea, so there was very little to talk up. As much as I would try to offers faint words of praise towards Ireland, I’d spend an equal amount of time explaining where in fact Ireland was and that, despite its proximity to the United Kingdom it was not in fact a territory of the Queen, or attempting to talk down the hype of Irish drinking habits and love of Riverdancing to the tune of IRA marching songs. It was hard to find a middle ground.

I don’t imagine that this image of Irishness has disappeared, and while there are plenty who shun the whole idea of the image of an Irishman, they will feel the necessity to indulge in the inebriating elements of the celebration. Not that I have a problem with this, I suppose. It’s often a mid-week day off, and what better way to beat the hump than to have few drinks. For your sins, like.

There is a strong trend in Ireland which now sees over-drinking on St Patrick’s Day as something the national image could do without. Doing so robed in green and bedecked in shmarockery in the name of a saint in a increasingly secular society just doesn’t rock the boat seven days of the week. I’d fall into this category of Irish person, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to celebrate the day any longer.

Like it or not, Ireland’s national day is St Patrick’s Day. I often felt that we needed some kind of an independence day or a day that at least allows us to recognise the achievements of those who saw about Ireland’s independence from England. Ireland being Ireland though, some would never see us truly independent seeing as we still have the six counties in the north as part of the UK, while there are plenty of elements who could never stand for approving of the actions of De Valera or Collins camp.

I think that Paddy’s Day has allowed us, more and more in recent years, to celebrate ourselves a little more than any other kind of national celebration would allow. While the parades and bedecking in green seem to be embellished habits from abroad, they certainly have allowed for the new identity of St Patrick’s Day to shine through. The parade in Dublin and the hundreds of thousands of revellers are far removed from the local parades which town after town celebrates in as much fashion as the community can muster.

When I helped out with the St Patrick’s Day festival in Seoul, we saw about doing the same thing, but in a slightly different way. You would always do your best with what you had, and we would regularly muster together as much Irish cultural talent as possible. This would include Irish dancers, US army bands playing Irish ballads and songs, a Korean U2 tribute band, some class of an Irish-Canadian folk rock six piece, and a guitar wielding human juke box from Bray performing across the afternoon, while in the background all forces of paddywhackery were out in force encouraging and inviting new participants into the madness that is Irishness in Korea.

Community was the essential element, even if it meant participating in a field of plastic Paddy inspired mayhem. The more bodies the better was the philosophy of choice, because let’s not forget this was a party we having. It was so much fun and such a success that we didn’t mind the moans from locals and the endless tidy-up come six o’clock.

In Blanchardstown in Dublin where I now live, and in Dunboyne were I spent my formative years there are now community parades. They don’t appear to have much resembling the hype of our Seoul shenanigans, and they pale in comparison to the big one in Dublin. Regardless, the faces throughout are smiling as big as any other parade, and they are faces you could recognise, maybe not now but in a couple of weeks when you’re in the local Supervalu or Spar.

As a parent though, I found it encouraging to see so many kids at the centre of the parade, marching, kicking, dancing, whistling, and chanting. These little things, small as they are and as insignificant as they seem mean a lot to these families who get to see each other having their own little moment as the centre of attention.

This far from a bad thing, because regardless of who we are we always need to feel a little bit important, and to have a sense of place in our community. This community can be a small village in the west of Ireland, a suburb or Dublin, or a shower of foreigners clattered together in one of the largest cities on the planet a mere 8,000 kilometres away from home.

 

Buddha’s Birthday at 반야사


The nearest Buddhist temple to our place is just across the road. In fact I pass it every time I go to work. It’s small and hidden up a small hill behind ample tree cover. In fact you’d miss it completely if it were for the multicoloured lanterns which line the street from early April, lanterns which are of course in anticipation of today, Buddha’s Birthday.

I’m inclined to think that Buddha’s Birthday is one of the nicer holidays in Korea, where the majority are made up of celebrations for independence and the constitution and such like. Granted that they are all important, but they are in some respects new holidays. Celebrating the Buddha has been going on in Korea for a long time, and maybe something of the history has rubbed off on folks.

Buddhism has been practised in Korea since around the fourth century, and was welcomed in both the Three Kingdoms period and the Unified Silla period. During the Chosun dynasty, while not entirely ostracised, much Buddhism was forced to the side and practice was reserved in secluded mountain areas. Today this could be why many Buddhist temples can be found on hills and mountainsides – or it could be that they are just nice places to have temples.

We’ve been coming the 반야사 for a few years, and it is a different place to the usual mean and impersonal streets of Yeongtong. I don’t want to say that people change when they step on to the green grass looking out over the many high-rise apartments across the horizon, but there seems to be a different attitude. Courtesy is one thing that is in abundance, and smiles, and conversation with strangers. The chanting from the loudspeakers and the moktoks steady hollow tapping has a positive influence on even the sourest citizen it would seem.

To add to this, the sun was shining down warming the small tree protected garden of dry grass and multicoloured lanterns. The colours were lined in neat straight rows, each lantern recognising a donor and that a prayer would be said in their honour. To the side lines of white lanterns were representative of those who have passed away.

The stone pathway which dissected the garden, halfing the garden, with the temple to one side and the a large open area filled with mats for sitting on the other. Here people had gathered in family groups and were sitting and chatting while enjoying the temple food. This was a simple mountain or san-chae bibimbap  – essentially, fresh greens, some bean sprouts, mushrooms, a kimchi, and of course red pepper paste known to everyone else who isn’t a fresh off the boat tourist as go-chu-chang.

We have been celebrating Buddha’s Birthday in Korea for as long as myself and Herself have been a couple. It’s kind of a thing we like to do. Before we would go to Gangwon-do and visit a small temple Herself’s mother used to go to. Again, it was a similar set up without the nice grass, but admittedly the food was better (it is Gangwon-do of course). After that we’d usually go for a walk through Odaesan National Park, for more food and of course the beautiful Seogumgang Valley.

But none of that this year. Lovely Yeongtong was on the cards, and in fairness it didn’t disappoint.

 

For more photographs from Buddha’s Birthday at 반야사 please take a look at my set on Flickr

 

Did you celebrate Buddha’s Birthday? What did you do?

Is there any local festival specific to your home you’d like to share?

 

Is it December Already?


So now that Halloween is over we can all start getting our Christmas decorations down and checking the fairy lights are all working. While we’re at it, order a turkey, and for christ’s sake start knitting that jumper, there’s a 12 Pubs of Christmas on somewhere…

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Is it a bit early to be joking about this?

The thing is I can titter to myself, but I know that for a fact this is how things might as well be. Christmas is a bigger and bigger ordeal as each year passes. The lights in the cities go up earlier, there are more and more elaborate Santa’s grottos in supermarkets, and for some reason many people’s livers do not collapse, despite the increased effort.

If I was back in Ireland I could probably complain about this. But I’m not. I’m in Korea. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to invite you, my humble reader to celebrate this phenomenon.

In case you haven’t already noticed, preparations for the Christmas period are already in motion. Not more than two or three weeks ago I was in Costco and not one Halloween thing-a-majig did I see. However, Christmas trees and cribs to abandon were in stock. One crib, which to my eye was a walk-in one, had statues of the shepherds, wise men, Joseph, and Mary, not to mention the assorted livestock which usually comes with these things, all of which would have dwarfed little +1 at full stretch.

In starbucks yesterday, November 1st lest we not forget, they had rolled out their red Christmas campaign with all their Christmas flavoured coffees and whatnot over heating from too much cream and chocolate sprinkles. And this afternoon in Emart, the Korean supermarket chain, there was even a small section of plastic Christmas trees and flashing Santa Clauses.

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There are a couple of reasons why this doesn’t make me irate.

First of all there are more important things to get angry about.

Second of all, I kind of expect it so what is the point of getting angry about it – I wish I could say the same for driving standards in Yeongtong…

Thirdly, it’s Korea.

“What? That’s not a very good third excuse”, I hear you chirp.

Well it is. Korea is not a Christmas country. When I think family and holiday in Korea I think Chuseok and Seolal. When I hear Christmas in Korea I hear day off and drinking. Wait. That sounds the same as an Irish Christmas.

When I first came to Korea in 2005 I was lucky to even see the colours red and white together. I lived near a McDonalds which kind of helped me realise it was Christmas, but otherwise there was hardly any wind of it in the Seoul air. By 2008 I was living in Itaewon and you could kind of pick up on it a bit. I was also working in a much bigger school so they pushed the western holidays or whatever a little more, so I was reminded of Christmas somewhat more.

Around that time, someone in Seoul City Hall had the bright idea that fairy lights all over the place made the city look nice in the dark of winter, so Seoul suddenly looked like it was all lit up for Christmas. Of course these lights persisted until February, but in early Decemeber you could be forgiven for feeling the Christmas mood.

Despite this history of Christmas in Korea, my main thought still is that Christmas isn’t a Korean holiday, and any attempt to celebrate it isn’t going to match the ideas we have of Christmas in our own western homes. It’s not a family holiday for starters, and it’s certainly not one that many Koreans look back on with any amount of nostalgia. Now, you do see some kids getting Christmas presents from Santa Claus, and there’s that phenomenon of couples going to Myeong-dong on Christmas Day, but aside from that… oh yeah, don’t forget the twenty million or so Christians in the country (but since when has Christmas been about Christianity, right?).

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If you want to get an idea for where Christmas stands, maybe you should look at Halloween, which for some reason is called Halloween Day (yeah, I know…). There is no resemblance between the Halloweens in Korea and any of the Halloweens in Ireland I remember. For starters where is the abject fear of teenagers in the streets after dark? I could go on.

There is little point in growling about how Christmas is celebrated here. It’s like a Korean in Ireland complaining about how they just don’t do Chuseok like they do back home. And anyway, the fact that the commercial aspect is sneaking into popular culture should be comfort enough, seeing as it’s probably the most dominant feature of a typical western Christmas.

For me, I can find Christmas in Korea a very lonely time, even with a fantastic wife and now and amazing little daughter to keep me company, but I’ve never found a comparable comfort in the Christmas that Korea provides. That doesn’t mean that I don’t celebrate it. I’ve tried different things and always had a great time, but it’s not what I’d liken to Christmas. This doesn’t make it a bad thing.

The way I see it is there are two holidays here, one in the place it originated, and one attempt to liken it. Neither are wrong, neither will every be better, neither will ever suppress the other. Sure one may be more commercially driven than the other, or vice-versa.

So this December as I’m gradually getting used to red Starbucks signs and cups, mispronounced children’s Christmas songs, I’ll be happy knowing that at least there is something here that helps me get on with another year. What matters to me more than anything is, like any celebration, is who you spend it with and what you do, not what everyone else does.