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.

 

About Irish Alcoholics and Education Thingies


The story of the Irish woman who was refused a position in the Korea because of the alcoholism nature of her kind is one we are all familiar with (if you’re not here’s the original scoop!). It’s a sad story, it really is, and the fact that it is still being discussed is probably all the more sadder.

For starters, the woman who was refused the job was dead right to report and to notify the press about it. It’s this kind of stuff that people put up with in foreign countries all the time that needs to be highlighted. I think the fact that it went viral enough to be taken note of in the Korea means that some level of embarrassment should have a positive effect. Remember, no ones wrist will be slapped over this as there are no laws against this behaviour in the Korea.

It’s kind of a typical Korea story. Normal person applies for normal job but gets refused because someone heard that all these people from the same country do something abhorrent which may effect the well being of the poor children’s education. Or whatever.

First thing we are quick to point out is that this is someone in the Korea saying that the Irish are all alcoholics, which isn’t news to any Irish person who has lived abroad for longer than a weekend. In this instance there’s the serious case of the pot calling the kettle a pot. I would wager that whoever earned this opinion won it from keeping good company from some other bottom feeder who was familiar with Irish ‘culture’, and by ‘culture’ I mean drinking all day on St Patricks Day – be that in the Korea or wherever.

Ireland and it’s ‘ness is not a well known subject in the Korea. I suppose some people are aware that Ireland is where the film Once came from, and they’ve heard of Robbie Keane, some of our golfers, and that it’s beside England. Things like Guinness are regularly confused as from other parts, Germany in this case, and notions such as our infectious charm, love of potatoes, tollerance of precipitation, and enjoyment of a drink or two are in fact alien to many a Korean in the street (and there are many Koreans). My point is that said numpty didn’t lick their opinion off a stone, they heard a rumour and sure that’s good enough for them. A stereotype was preached, and not for the first time an Irish person didn’t get a job because we’re all mad drunks. Maybe because it’s 2014 we are upset, but I’ve heard this to be a common enough reaction in parts of Australia.

I’ll give you a comparable anecdote.

Back in 2007 I was interviewing for a hagwon (read small privately owned school which taught mostly kids and likely to where our victim applied). I spoke with two manager type teachers, and was grilled kind of awkwardly about my nationality. Somewhere along the line this person had encountered Irish people, and there was a big problem – Irish people played a lot of sport. Yes, this is pretty serious I know. I mean athletic healthy people are problem in any business right? What’s worse is I’m not athletic although I eat like a weight lifter. So you can gather that at this point I was pretty incensed.

Her argument was that Irish people played a lot of sport and got injured and couldn’t teach because of said injuries. I tried to wrangle how serious she was about this accusation, but decided to let it settle. The rest of my interview seemed to progress well, and I managed a second stab at it. Maybe that’s why it’s always good to have two people interviewing you at the same time.

Later in the week I met with the principal and we interviewed again, and the woman who was so endeared by the athleticism of the Irish (myself included) was present. She attempted the spiel about Irish people playing sports, and may have even thrown in a bit about us having a drink or two, but as she said it in Korean my internal bullshitometer kicked in and I cut across her and said ‘excuse me no – your’re interviewing me, and I’m professional blah blah blah.

In the end I got the job, and low and behold, the woman who interviewed me wasn’t a feature a month later. I stuck around for another year and a half and still get a big hug from the principal if/when I walk in the door – and this is coming from a guy who was so locked on the teacher induction day I tackled a co-worker into a table where all the senior teaching staff were seated. But maybe I was lucky to have a decent boss who liked a good laugh (although she’s gone a bit OCD on the whole CCTV in the classrooms of late I’ve heard). If I had not got the job maybe I would have emailed the Irish Mirror or whoever was certain to publish the story.

I’m glad this story went viral though, and I hope there’s some numpty at a recruiters desk is now nursing their wounds, be they merely inflicted on their self esteem. This whole thing though shouldn’t really tarnish the Irish’s reputation as English teachers or people in the Korea. Every so often you hear stupid stories like this coming from the penninsula and you just have to shake your head and wonder when will they learn. Learning doesn’t really mean that they should be more open to other cultures and respectful, just that they stop and think before they make projections about other nationalities, and perhaps remember that it’s another person you are speaking to (with access to the internet).

The other problem we have here is that, much like Korean knowledge of Ireland, Irish knowledge of Korea is at about a similar level. Despite the large number of Koreans in Dublin at the moment of which most are studying English, many people don’t know anything about their country, other than….well you can tell me yourself. Are we perpetuating reverse racism by being appalled by the actions of one probably poorly made decision and seeing it as a judgement presribed by the entire Korean society? It’s hard to see any benefit in this whole charade to be honest. Yes, we’re raising awareness about a kind of serious incident, which the victim herself said she kind of laughed at, then took the right steps. Listening to the radio and reading the news reports was enough for me to see that a change of perception of Koreans by Irish people is a concern.

It is important in these situations to be wary that we do not allow ourselves to descend to a similar level. Regardless of what you think, racism and discrimination is active in every society. In some cases it is more obvious than others. Ireland and Korea both have their problems, namely that we are both very prone to lazy stereotyping. I can’t speak for other countries, but I’d be surprised if I was far wide of the mark.

I’ve heard of plenty of Irish people getting screwed over for it just being the Korea and the English language schools there have in many respects little to no moral standards. Most Irish people have the problem of trying to convince potential employers that they can teach in an American accent, and I would now urge any Irish teacher never to lower themselves. If they can’t accept diversity then you certainly don’t want to be part of that staffroom. There have been worse incidents, but I can’t think of any directed at Irish people specifically because they’re Irish.

It’s sad that these stories do come out, not just because someone has to endure this sort of stupidity, but also because despite all the developments and hard work many people have done to make Korea more internationally welcoming and diverse, idiocy still prevails. I would advocate for some kind of legislation that sees every person, regardless of nationality, age, and of course gender, as equal and with the right to be free from being discriminated against. But it’s the Korea, and there are just too many factors that need to be changed before anything as reasonable as that will happen. One of these factors is the need to enforce the plethora of laws which are currently ignored on a regular basis.

To conclude I hope that girl went out and got herself a better job, and one where her employers respect and trust her to be a professional, not one where they just play up to stereotyping and hearsay. Korea is a great place to live, make friends, gain job experience, and from my perspective fall in love and start a family. I only wish, dream, hope, that one day it will just tidy its act up and catch up with whatever standard it seems to expect it projects.

In Recognition for Contributions to Irish Culture in Korea…


On Thursday night I was invited over to the Embassy of Ireland in Seoul for a special event. It had been a while since I’d been there, having been in on occasion helping promote Irish Association of Korea events, and for other reasons. I brought the family with me this time, and remembered to take a shave and a shower beforehand. The visit was worth the effort.

Myself and five other individuals were to be awarded for our contributions to the promotion of Irish culture in Korea. While I was undoubtedly the shortest tenured recipient of the award, the company I kept held no qualms about my presence at the ceremony.

With ambassador O’Donoghue and IAK chair, Shauna Browne

Among those were Tom Coyner, who chaired the organisation for seven years and has his share of stories from over the years, Byung Guen Chun, a Korean gentleman who was encouraged into participating over ten years ago and is still an enthusiastic member, Sean Conneely, a Irish Columban missionary who has made Korea his home for over forty if not fifty years, and the daughter of Mr Lee (that’s what we’ve always called him, and I can’t find his business card to use his proper name, so sorry…) who is the owner of the Dublin bars in Gangnam and was unable to attend. Bernard Hughes, another long term Irish expat and contributor to the IAK, was unable to attend also.

It was a very simple ceremony. The Irish ambassador to Korea Aingeal O’Donoghue and IAK Chair Shauna Browne handed out the awards, after each of which a few words of praise were lauded and then the obligatory photographs, all washed down with a bottle or two of champagne. It was a nice but short opportunity to catch up with some old friends, some of whom I am likely not to see again for some time.

Award recipients and ambassador O’Donoghue and IAK chair Shauna Browne

I can’t really emphasise how much this award means to me. While there’s the obvious recognition that is attached to the commendation, that it comes from my peers in both the IAK and the embassy is an indication that the work individual contributions we, and by we I mean all those who have gone before me, have done over the year building up the Irish Association of Korea to the organisation it is today has not gone ignored.

The past year has seen a few notable departures in the committee but I think that this change allows for new faces to step up and embrace the challenges I feel are worth the effort. I couldn’t have imagined myself organising as many St. Patrick’s Day festivals as I did when I first came to Korea, and in the end look where I ended up just before I leave the country over nine years later.

My new paperweight 😉

This is a perfect indicator of how important it is to take every opportunity that you stumble upon, embellish it, nurture it if it’s worth it, and then let it grow with you. And while I know I travelled half way around the world to do this, it’s not necessary for everyone. You just need to be able to make the opportunity yourself, but I’m not going to tell you what those opportunities are. That’s the part that’s up to you.

Now I just need to find something to fill my time over the next five years. Maybe they could use me in Dublin…

 

For more information on the Irish Association of Korea and how you can get involved (I recommend it!) visit www.iak.co.kr

You can see more photographs from this small event here 🙂