Letter from Korea, November 2011
A few months ago I was elected as the new Chairman of the Irish Association of Korea. I suppose I had it coming to me. So, what about it?
The Irish Association of Korea has been around for over ten years and primarily seeks to promote Ireland and Irishness in Korea. We do have a few other mandates, such as fundraising for a memorial to honour the Irish who died in the Korean War, but essentially we try our best to promote Ireland as a country rich in culture which is distinct from the many other countries busy promoting their cultural identity in Korea.
As I’ve written about the lack of general knowledge on Ireland in Korea before, I won’t go into it now. I think it would be appropriate to give a little information on what I’m hoping to do for the promotion of Ireland over the next year, aside from hosting the usual events such as Paddy’s Day and our annual céilí.
One thing that the IAK needs to do is to be more active on the ground. When Irish people arrive in Korea, or before they arrive, I can only imagine they are pretty dismayed by the distinct lack of information on being Irish in Korea. There is very little information about where to go and meet Irish people, where to play Irish sports, can Irish products be bought in Korea, or where can an Irish persons perspective on life in Korea be found?
Now, I’m only basing this fact on a quick search before I started this post, which basically went along the lines of ‘Irish Korea’ and ‘Ireland Korea’, and both results were pretty miserable. For the search ‘Ireland Korea’, with the exception of the Irish embassy’s webpage and the embassy’s old webpage, there is nothing of use to the Irish community here in Korea. ‘Irish Korea’ proves to be somewhat more profitable with the IAK’s Facebook page and website showing up, but still the same search results as previously still show up on the first page. There is very little evidence of an active Irish community that welcomes and invites Irish people into the country.
What I want to do is to build a independent and visible Irish community here in Korea. One that can be found, not by the local collection of Irish pubs open late and full to the brim with ‘patrons’, but a feeling of friendliness and openness based around characteristic that can simply be described as Irish. I want to do this by offering people the opportunity and encouragement to be proud of their culture, homes, and backgrounds.
This community is one where Irish people can be reached to provide valuable information and help with getting settled in Korea. It is a community that is open to everyone, regardless of where they are from and one that encourages those from Ireland, and those interested in Ireland, to come together with a true sense of community.
Community is all about sharing, and while the Irish population is spread out around the country, it is still small enough to encourage community within its numbers. From the establishment of GAA clubs around the country, to the few occasional trad sessions which pop up around Seoul, the Irish community has only prospered thanks to the natural magnets which we have built into our bodies which naturally attract us together in an often unexplainable way, regardless of what part of the country we hail from.
Ireland and Irish people both leave a strong impression in Korea. When I returned to Korea several years ago to begin teaching in Kyunghee University, the head of my department was so excited by the prospect of having an Irishman on the faculty, as the last Irish person she had known was none other than Kevin O’Rourke. I can’t count how many people I have met in Korea who are proud to know about Ireland, it’s almost as if there is a closet community of Korean lovers of Ireland. From their appreciation of Guinness to the national infatuation with movie Once, Ireland leaves an impression in people’s mind which is distinct.
There’s so much talk in the media in Ireland about sending attracting business from Asia to Ireland to help revitalise the country and provide jobs for those struggling to find work. By creating a positive impression of Ireland, and reminding people of what Ireland has to offer, as Irish people we can provide the fuel to energise the stuttering economy at home. Little by little, a difference can be made, if not immediately then certainly in the future. It is because of the Irish people that Ireland is so distinguishable around the world, and it’s time that Korea became more aware of this factor, because, in all fairness, their missing out on how deadly we are!
It’s because of all these factors that I hope to encourage more Irish people to connect to established networks, and to create their own, and to help to promote Ireland as a country that, despite its failings and problems domestically, is a fantastic place for everyone to live in, visit, study, do business, spend money, earn money, and whatever else it is that would cause anyone to consider Ireland.
I’m not talking about everyone learning how to do céilí dancing and play hurling, I’m talking about being yourself and sticking to your own values as an Irish person raised on an unsteady diet of the Leaving Cert, knacker drinking, and bad television, or whatever your poison was.
Being Irish, as they say, is a lifestyle. In Korea, it’s a lifeline. Regardless, it’s time we started living it.