Time Decides for Ireland


Punctuality has never been a strong Irish trait. In historical terms Ireland is particularly late to appreciate things. But a bit like many of the buses I spent what seemed like my entire youth waiting for, eventuality it turns up and life continues on amicably and prosperously.

Yesterday saw the unprecedented recognition of Irish soldiers who fought for Britain and died, along with so many other young men from many other countries, at Gallipoli in the First World War. A ceremony to celebrate the centenary of the battle’s commencement took place and saw members of Britain’s royal family, the Turkish president, and significantly the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. This form of recognition is a vital step in appreciating a significant link which has existed for centuries between Britain and Ireland, and this is the service of Irish men as soldiers of Crown.

Commonwealth soldiers’ graves overlooking the blue of the Adriatic Sea at Gallipoli (image: wikipedia)

For more there is a worthwhile account here: Gallipoli “Shrapnel burst as frequently as the tick of clock”

Since independence in 1922 a blanket has been thrown over this aspect of Irish history, but is now gradually been drawn back. For many years the contribution of Irish soldiers to the British military has been ignored in official circles, and in many corners considered an embarrassment for people who fought for their rulers.

During British rule of Ireland, military service has featured as an important component in the relationship between the two countries. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish troopers were recruited regularly and made up a significant human resource for the then expanding British Empire. They were mostly soldiers, and in that respect cannon fodder. At the same time, service in the Royal Navy was considered a worthwhile punishment for miscreants, be they political or social, before the idea of dispatching them to Australia hatched.

Despite the obvious threat that military service presented, it was considered a worthwhile service right up until the end of the World War One. Namely because it paid a salary and also a widows pension, a luxury farmers and labouring jobs were never entertained with. Job security was an attractive perk, as was being away from one’s spouse for large periods of time while the soldier was deployed in places foreign. My own great grandfather on my mother’s side was one of these people, and saw action in Sudan, and the Boer War among other conflicts. I think that he may have been too old to fight during the Great War, but he was certainly enlisted at the time.

The First World War saw an unprecedented number of Irish recruits signing up to fight. It was perceived that with good behaviour Ireland would eventually earn the Home Rule it had so desperately strove for. In total almost 50,000 Irish soldiers perished during the war. The effects of the 1916 rising saw this effort may have been a waste of time.

The National War Memorial, Islandbridge, Dublin 8 (Image: Wikipedia)

While Irish recognition of its contribution to World War One has been slow, the service of its people as soldiers has never been in doubt, it’s role in the second World War is something much more in doubt. The state officially took a position of neutrality, but had no qualms about introducing conscription, rationing, and preparations in the event of an invasion. Meanwhile thousands of Irish people took the short journey to British territory and signed up to take the real fight to tyranny in Europe’s battlefields. While nowhere near as many people died as did between 1914 and 1918, the number is close to 10,000 and it is a figure which exceeds many other political causes of death, including the Troubles and War of Independence.

This process of recognition is probably easy for most people, especially when given an opportunity to consider life as it was. A better understanding of history, as well as a stronger understanding of humanity are key to this. Irish people are more comfortable in their relationship with their closest neighbour than they have ever been, and they are also more confident in their own understanding of their own national identity that we can appreciate who we are and what really makes us so. As a more globablised condition exists in Ireland so does a stronger belief in the necessity to understand Ireland’s role in the future, and to do this right, understanding the past is an important component.

It is with a slight sense of bragging that I should be reminded that it was on this day two years ago that I took part in one of these processes of recognition. On a wet morning in Yongsan-gu outside the Korean War Memorial I was very fortunate to be offered the opportunity to lay a wreath at the newly laid memorial honouring the Irish who during the Korean War. The Irish contribution, while quite small, was an unofficial contribution as those who fell did so wearing mostly British uniforms. The significance of this was twofold, in that it recognised that while Ireland had not officially supported the war, its people had rallied in defence of Korea’s freedom, and this is something that the people and veterans of that time appreciate.

Also, with respect to yesterday’s ceremony in Turkey, it is another step by Ireland towards understanding our contribution to the history of the twentieth century. Previously it was buried away as a past which spoiled Ireland’s image as a nation which fought for its freedom from Britain.

In Ireland we now look at our past and realise that our connection is stronger than the rules inscribed with the mere signing of a piece of paper. We look to ourselves now for our answers, and we look to the way we can make our country better and stronger. This is always a learning process, but knowing that is a process makes the journey a lot easier.

 

Reading the Korean War


I don’t profess to be an expert on much, such is my modesty. Even though I’ve lived in Korea for over nine years now and am invested in the country through family, I can’t really attest an authority on much of the country’s history. This is certainly an embarrassment as I’m supposed to be a history graduate.

When I first arrived in Korea I read Michael Breen’s The Koreans, and it was the kind of book that just seemed to give enough of everything so that, if you were curious about some other aspect of the country, you could easily be wise enough to make the wise decision on some follow up reading. I think I finished that book in 2006, if not 2005, when I first arrived here.

That’s quite a long time to spend learning about a country without reading much on it. This indeed may be a problem which much of Korea’s expatriate experts, in that we spend a lot of time here and profess to be armchair experts on the condition of being in Korea, yet we hold very little knowledge beyond a decent gogi jib and our opinions on ActiveX and Internet Explorer. I say this because this is basically me, and while I know there are plenty who know more than most, I can imagine there are plenty who know less than me.

It was in some respects an accident that I picked up Andrew Salmon’s books on the British, Australian, and indeed Scottish and Irish involvement in the Korean War. Around this time last year I was very fortunate to represent the Irish community in Korea when I laid a wreath at the unveiling of a memorial for Irish people who fell in the Korean War. Throughout the process of arranging the memorial, Andrew Salmon was a constant figure advising on the experiences of the Irish in the war, specifically the Royal Ulster Rifles, who suffered some of the highest casualties of the British and commonwealth units in the war. Throughout the process and after his first book To the Last Round was lauded as a must read.

Reading about the British involvement for me, while being Irish, brings it a little closer to home. While we are at all attempts proclaiming ourselves radically different, a commonality exists in many respects. Maybe this stems from a certain familiarity with our neighbours, one that is more realistic than a television impressed notion of Ameicanism.

I went online to check the books out, and here I found a second book of his Scorched Earth, Black Snow which I saw was from earlier in the year. So being a history graduate and knowing the importance of the period before the period we’re talking about, I decided I’d give that a read first. So I tapped away at the screen of my iPad, and before I knew it I had a digital copy downloading away.

That being said, I didn’t actually get around to reading the actual book until I was in Thailand this winter, about eight months later. So shoot me, but I’m a distracted soul, and admittedly one who really hadn’t been reading as much as I would have liked. But I think I’ve been doing better of late. Good books have helped.

After reading both of his books I contacted Andrew himself and asked him a few questions about the writing of the books. I has always interested me how authors who work full time as writers fit in the time to write a non-ficition book, and especially one on history which requires extreme levels of not only dedication but beyond meticulous research. Pick up either of his books and you will understand what I am talking about.

In an email Andrew explained that most of these books were written ‘after midnight’, and that the writing was ‘personally and professionally satisfying, but financially non-remunerative’. This is probably something that scares many away from writing books, this constraint on our time is not recuperated in our wallets – not that I’d know, I’m just saying.

Throughout both books there is extensive first hand reports from those who fought in the battles and slit trenches. From the Busan Perimeter to the heroic holding action at Pakchon in North Korea, relieving the 1st US Marine Division in Chongsin Resevoir, and the of course the slaughter and defiance from the battles along the Imjin River just to the north of Seoul, so much of these books comes from first-hand experience you cannot discount their authority. It seems at times that it’s unfortunate that there weren’t more pages in the books.

‘I started with the regimental and veteran associations’, Andrew Salmon explained of how he made this possible, ‘the nature of these groups is that, if they trust you or like you, once you speak to Chap A, he recommends Chap B, and so on ad infinitum. I was surprised at how open most of these guys were. I think 99 percent of them had never had anyone ask them about their experiences in the “Forgotten War” and as they are now in their twilight years, they wanted to speak, to get their war on the record for posterity. Many of them volunteered material that I was initially hesitant to ask about. For example, the account of one atrocity – the murder of a Korean civilian by a soldier who simply wanted to test his rifle (told in To the Last Stand) – was told to me, without prompting, in the back of a bus, in the company of several other veterans. None of them contradicted him.  I am pretty sure these kinds of incidents stuck in their minds, and they wanted some kind of release’.

Like these couple of incidents, there are so many images and memories specific to individuals which not one person who would there would attest against. I wouldn’t say you get numbed to atrocity, but after some time you kind of stop being amazed and just accept it as a circumstance.

Of all these incidents though two much discussed ones come to mind which I couldn’t help but be frustrated or shocked by – the first was the accidental napalming of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, or Jocks, which was perhaps as brutal and unfortunate an incident of friendly fire as you’ll come across, and the action of the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars as 29 Brigade withdrew from their Imjin defensive positions – not only was it the first time these newly touted tanks had a chance to really operate, but it was in such desperate circumstances that you had to wish they could have done more.

Of course throughout these books, it must be expressed, there is descriptions of rampant slaughter described and it is hard at times to remember that the Chinese who were mown down could have been as desperate as the men whose experiences I was reading about were. It was a time that we can be grateful to have lived after.

With more and more devices providing reading experiences, writers are being coerced into providing a more diverse package. I read my copy of Scorched Earth, Black Snow on my iPad, and as I read I followed 27 Brigade north with Google Maps. I tried and failed to find their positions on the Naktong bridgehead, but as they moved on to Seoul, and then North Korea and along the main highway through Sariwon, Pyongnyang, Sukchon, Anju, and of course Pakchon and on to Chongju, feeling eternally like this was going to lead to one great bloody Borodino – if only it was so glorious. You knew something was going to happen but you couldn’t really tell how or when it would, but when they captured that Chinese soldier while on patrol you knew that something was about to happen that they would have little control over.

‘I wish my publisher had added film of one of those as part of the eBook package’ Andrew said, ‘that would have given the reader a huge amount more visual material to look at, but I don’t think technology has been well-leveraged or well-deployed by traditional media managers’. For the digital age, this is the advantage that eBooks have, and it is one being leveraged by the media, just not publishing. ‘As a print journalist, I am being asked to become a photographer, a film recorder, a presenter, a film editor as well as my core task’ Andrew continued. ‘The upside is that one has to upskill. The downside is that I am not being paid more’. If we expect so much of the media, perhaps publishing will follow soon, but we shall see how high the quality will be.

And perhaps it is our expectations that are dragging so much for nothing from everything. With the internet, nobody expects to pay, and this is where our problems start. ‘The Internet is killing journalism and publishing’ Andrew continued, ‘though it has to be said, the blame for this long, slow, death really lies at the hands of the management of the newspaper and publishing industries, who have failed to come up with financial models that will guarantee the future of traditional media’. This is something that is happening, but it is slow, and expensive, and a learning process. ‘In the future, when online media has matured, we will look back on the first two decades of the 21st century as the critical, transformative period. Alas, it has been bloody; the number of working journalists has fallen horrifically. This is not good for media but – without wishing to sound alarmist – it is not good for democratic governance either.’ A stern warning indeed.

In terms of the books, I’d recommend them to anyone. Enthusiast or casual interest, these books should be read, not only because of what I have said above, but also because they have kindled an understanding and gratitude for our present situation, and made me appreciate my extended family further.

What struck me more than anything in these books was not the descriptions of war and sacrifice by foreign troops, but the images of a poor and agricultural society made destitute by the destruction wrought from the international deliberations over its territory. The people who lowered themselves so dejectedly, who fought their own demons, who fled, who stayed, who starved, but who stuck around and dug in sacrificing more to build up what is truly a remarkable miracle, 21st Century Korea.

*

On the reception his books have received Andrew Salmon told me this:

‘[The responses have been] universally positive: Mainstream media – including The Times, The Daily Mail, and BBC History Magazine  – have been kind. I’d add that “To the Last Round” has 130 five-star reviews on Amazon UK, which is an unusual number for a non-fiction book, and which I am particularly pleased about. The only negative review I suffered was from the writer of an expatriate magazine here in Seoul. What is most gratifying is the response from veterans, who have said: “You have captured it – this is what it was like!” One, the late Colonel Mervyn McCord, said in an Amazon review, “Anyone suffering from PTSD should not read this book – they would have a relapse.” I have also had endorsements from two “true” heroes – Derek Kinne, George Cross and Bill Speakman, Victoria Cross. That kind of response is deeply gratifying’.

 

Andrew Salmon’s personal blog/website is tothelastround.wordpress.com (this particular page on the site is worth particular attention in my view)

The books can be purchased online here

Images all courtesy of Andrew Salmon via flickr.

Is it Safe in South Korea on worldirish.com


I was asked to write an op-ed by worldirish.com, a news website from Ireland which connects stories and activities of Irish interest from around the world, about the ongoing crisis between South Korea and North Korea. Most importantly, they were interested in the situation here and the international media’s response.

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The line which divides North and South Korea at Panmounjeom.

While I believe I carry the same opinion as many expats, and even experts here, my biggest concern at the moment is that I am not wrong about what I wrote. I wouldn’t be alone in this regard.

Here’s the article:

Is it Safe in South Korea? An Irishman’s Reflection on Living in the Country

To back me up a little, here are some links which will support my reasoning:

North Korea News is all Hype

Is North Korea Being More Restrained than we Think?

High Tensions on Korean Penninsula – interview with Andrei Lankov – Lankov’s closing statements here are most significant.

Signs of North Korea Easing Off War Message at Home

Map: This is How Far those North Korean Missiles Can Actually Reach

South Korea has Already Won

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The Korean Penninsula

If you’re interested in actual news sources worth following, I find that both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post are reliable and don’t over embellish the reality, and both actively report from Korea with journalists who are aware of the ongoing situation and history between the two countries.

From Korea, most of the major dailies have English language editions online, but I would recommend Yonhap News, the Korean wire service, and the Hankyoreh as it is no where near as conservative as some of the other more famous papers.

Twitter is an invaluable resource during times like this, and if you’re on twitter and interested in following some people on the ground who live tweet updates regularly, Mashable put out an article recently with a list of very worthwhile follows with a good variety of opinions.

I hope that this post helps any of you to understand the situation a little better and will let you rest at ease somewhat.

An Origin of Korean Discontent


A thought struck me as I was taking a shower before work this morning. With the renewal of tension along the North-South Korean border it’s a sharp reminder of the results of history, and what we’re looking at here, could be considered as one of the final plays in the game of the Great Powers. It, like so many skirmishes before, is taking place in a distant field which effects the lives of people so far away they don’t even look real. Well as one of these people I can assure you that it’s quite real.

Since Korea opened up to outside influence in the late nineteenth century, much like many other small kingdoms, was turned into a pawn in the chessboard of empire building. This process set Korea up to be misused and abused by forces outside their control, and today we are experiencing the continued results of this.

Unlike Ireland, which is also a product of imperialism, modern Korea is a result of the lobbying and gamesmanship which didn’t effect Ireland as it was already well entrenched in the British imperial model of manipulation and exploitation. The imperialism that changed Korea was quite different.

A pre-colonial 1851 map of Japan and Korea – note how little is known of the Korean coastline, compared with Japan. (image courtesy of antiqueprints.com)

Following the arrival of the Japanese (note: not a great power, more on this later) in Korea, and later reactions by the French and American navies on Korean territory, Korea gradually opened up its borders and allowed foreigners to enter Korea. Many came as diplomats, government officials, businessmen, and of course missionaries.

If you visit Seoul and spend some time close to Seoul City Hall, take a wander around the streets and occasionaly you’ll happen upon an old European styled building. Several are pre-Japanese rule and can give you a sample of how these new people began to shape a new Seoul with their influence.

Korea, and especially Seoul began to change rapidly. In fact some Irishmen were heavily involved in this enterprise, notably John McLeavy Brown who functioned as chief of Korea’s customs and as treasurer. While McLeavey Brown was functioning here it’s important to note the Japanese influence in Korea was on the increase.

I’ve read a few articles on this situation and for some reason they seem to point the finger at Japanese imperialism, but let’s not forget what year this was, and who McLeavy Brown was representing; he was the representative of the British Empire, not Great Britain or the UK, the British Empire, and this was a time when they were really the Empire.

Of course Britain was one of the Great Powers, the others of course were France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and to a lesser extent Italy. Britain, on the world stage, were by far the most significant entity by a large stretch. The British Empire had significant interests in the Far East, especially in China, but also trade with Japan and I can also assume with Korea.

One of the Empire’s biggest concerns was securing the safety of their Indian Empire which was constantly under threat due to the distance from London, but also from the encroachments by the Russian Empire to the north. Much of the eastern expansion of the Empire was to protect their key valuable south Asian empire. Due to this constant pressuring on the extremities of the British Empire, they established Port Hamilton on Komundo, which is between Yeosu and Jeju Island, in 1885. The base didn’t last long but there are still some remnants in the shape of a cemetery.

The Great Game – Russia and Britain at the turn of the twentieth century.

However, the British didn’t last long here despite the dangers from the Russians to the north in Vladivostok. As a means of establishing security and relieving the pressure on the Royal Navy which was significantly stretched in this area, an alliance were sought, and it was to Japan that the diplomats looked.  In 1902 the first Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed in London.

Not only did this allow the British the security of an ally in very distant place, it also signified the rise of this up until then very small and provincial empire in the east. More importantly it was Japan’s first real foray into colonialism.

It seems to me that this alliance escapes mention, and that Japan’s first major colonial venture did not go unsupported, and was in fact guided and assisted by the greatest power in the world at that time, the British Empire. This was a period long before the United States came to power – itself busy with its own internal colonialism – and a time when China, a huge empire in its own right, was crumbling under the pressure of the Great Powers commercial expansion in its territories.

In fact the only power at the time capable of rivalling Britain was the German Empire, but this had grown disillusioned with colonialism and was concentrating on its own prominence in Europe. This was a very different Germany of course to one you may confuse with the Third Reich of World War 2 infamy. The other European powers, namely the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the French, and the Russians, were in notable decline by the beginning of the twentieth century.

With the signing of the Anglo-Japanese treaty, Britain essentially gave its blessing to any Japanese expansion that did not conflict with British interests. In 1906 the Japanese secured their prominence by defeating the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War. The Treaty of Portsmouth was Japan’s prize in this conflict, as well as a renegotiated alliance with Britain, which effectively guaranteed the Japanese complete and unhindered access to the Empire of Korea, which eventually led to Korea being annexed in 1910. With this Korea became another coin in the trading of nations which epitomised the colonial bargaining and pillage of the Great Powers.

Japanese soldiers near Incheon during the Japo-Russo War, 1904 (image courtesy of wikipedia)

Like Morocco and the rest of North Africa, modern day Cambodia and Laos, Nepal, Afghanistan, and so many more territories during that period, European colonial powers carved them up with a pen on a map and distributed them like pieces of cake. Korea’s real carving though would have to wait another forty years.

The dividing of the far east by colonial powers was a colourful affair. (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

To add insult to injury, Korea was again left to the mercy of the dividing pen at the end of World War 2. Korea was not liberated, nor did it win its independence, this was gifted with the collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945, and this played an important factor in defining the nation’s future. Korea again was set as a buffer between the US and the newly arrived Soviets, who essentially moved the majority of their army from one side of the world to the other following the fall of Germany in a desperate attempt to prevent US hegemony on their Asian doorstep, and they achieved this.

Korean’s watched again as external forces dictated their immediate future, but this time their country was not occupied but it was divided in two. I think it can be safe to say that we know the outcome of this.

The demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.

In the twentieth century two events sealed the fate of this small peninsula. These events, despite the internal mechanisms which may have fought against them, came from outside Korea and were perpetrated by imperial powers. Today both North and South Korea rely heavily on the assistance of their major allies, while those who initially began the process of determining their fate over 100 years ago have relinquished their hegemony.

Much of their rhetoric can be traced to this, perhaps. South Korea insists on standing strong, determined not to let what it has fought hard to achieve be lost in conflict. South Korea has clearly learned its lessons from the past, and while of course now a wealthy nation with much influence in international affairs, has the military support of the United States behind it, the British Empire of our time.

North Korea is not without its lessons also. It’s anti imperialistic rhetoric will certainly ring clearly in the ears of those who live there, as I do not doubt that imperialism is a regular topic in history class. And we all watch as both rattle sabres again, demanding precedence but without much of an idea whether or not one will lunge.

Such is the way the world operates I suppose, but I think this history is worth considering when we try to understand the thinking by both nations at a difficult and tense time like this.

 

This is a rather rough account of my general thought – I don’t really have any further reading links other than the odd Wikipedia one which I used to confirm dates and treaty names. 

Trying to look back at the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina


Twenty years ago this week the war in Yugoslavia began its most horrific stage, the destruction, slaughter, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia Herzegovina. Can you remember where you were at this time in 1992? I was still in primary school. Many of the students I teach now in the university where I work were no more than a year or two old. Irish people were more concerned that they wouldn’t be getting Yugoslavia’s berth in the European Championships, than the fact that the country they would hopefully replace was about to experience the worst atrocities in Europe since the Nazis.

Wars seem to define decades more than anything. Sure a politician may have a lot to do with particular wars, such as George Bush in Iraq, but wars often do not stop with the transition of power. If you look down through the twentieth century, we see war after war, conflict after conflict, and if there’s very little conflict then there’s probably outright conquest. Stretching through the decades, wars and conflict have featured throughout and they define our decades with chapters in history books, each one an individual mark on our conscience for every time we forget and fail to learn from the mistakes society has made over and over again.

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