02/24/2015, 00.00
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S Korea and Ireland honour Fr McGlinchey, a missionary who saved Jeju Island from hunger

In South Korea since 1954, the Irish St Columban priest helped the local people adapt to modern farming techniques. He created a farm that has provided training for young people, and created job opportunities. For this, he received prizes from both South Korea and Ireland.

Seoul (AsiaNews) - Fr Patrick James McGlinchey, a member of the Missionary Society of St. Columban, received two medals, two great honours from the South Korean and Irish governments. Starting 60 years ago, his efforts have virtually saved the island of Jeju and laid the foundations of its modern economy.

South Korean authorities honoured the Irish clergyman last December, followed by the Irish government this month for his great deeds and dedication to the mission in Asia, one that has borne many fruits.

Fr McGlinchey arrived on Jeju Island, off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula, in April 1954, less than a year after the end of the bloody Korean War and the signing of the armistice that sanctioned the peninsula's division, sent by the Missionary Society of St. Columban.

What the recently ordained 26-year-old priest discovered upon his arrival was shocking. Poverty and war had reduced everything to bare survival, with hunger as the foremost challenge.  

Food was scarce and farming had been devastated by the conflict. Manufacturing had been geared towards the military and getting things back to normal was a struggle. Conscription had left few able-bodied men.

On Jeju Island, many people even today remember 3 April 1948, at a time when the newly independent country was undergoing political turmoil, thousands of communist guerrillas and their supporters attacked many of its police stations.

The then Rhee Syngman government responded to the attacks by swiftly cracking down on the communist forces. The conflict between the government and the rebels left thousands of Jeju residents either killed or injured.

"Jeju people suffered," said the Irish missionary. "They were very poor and in debt because nearly 30,000 people, mostly men, were killed during the series of tragedies after the independence," McGlinchey explained. "So people were left with a lot of widows, but the government did not have the budget to help them."

The outbreak of civil war in 1950 did not help locals even though Jeju had a certain degree of autonomy at the time. The island did not see combat, and its remaining male population - mostly farmers and fishermen - managed to avoid military service because of the massacre.

Given such history, islanders harboured suspicion toward outsiders like the Irish priest. Once on the island, Fr McGlinchey recognised however, that local traditional farming methods were inefficient, as well as unhygienic. And the problem went beyond sanitation. "They didn't know how to feed them. Three-year-old pigs couldn't reach 50 kilograms."

In his homeland, the Emerald Isle, he had worked on a farm and used to milk cows when he was a primary school student in Ireland. After he arrived in Korea, he began to lecture farmers about the proper way of raising animals.

"I made some proposals in different ways of raising cattle for five years. I talked to them, but they wouldn't listen to me," he said. "The first Korean words that I learned were 'An-doep-ni-da' ('No, it won't work')."

Therefore, in addition to his pastoral work, Fr McGlinchey had to try to persuade his parishioners and local farmers about better ways to raise animals. The latter viewed the young expat missionary as an outsider who knew nothing about farming.

"Farmers were the most difficult people to help because they thought they already knew all about farming because their ancestors had done the job for hundreds of years and this was the way they did things," he said.

As he found difficulty working with the stubborn, older farmers, he turned his attention toward the younger generation as the source of change for the island.

In 1961, thanks to the charity of some of his Irish Catholics, he brought a Yorkshire (white) pig and some new equipment. At Jeju, only black pigs were traditionally raised.

He built a little pig house in front of the church for the sow who soon produced 10 little white piglets. No one had ever seen white piglets before and Father McGlinchey became famous.

He made contracts with young students and gave each a pig. The contract stated that the pig should be raised separately from the toilet area (traditionally Jeju black pigs were fed human waste) and should be fed well. When the pig produces piglets, the students could keep all but two, which would be given back to the church.

Although things did not go as planned, eventually he set up a farm, named after Spanish patron Saint Isidore.

Reflecting on his life's work, the Father said there are few things that he wished he had done differently. "I would have not have put myself in the position of directly hiring people, paying wages to people as a foreigner. I would've spent more effort getting volunteers," he said.

Eventually, he purchased some sheep for wool and invited some sisters from Ireland to teach women to knit.

Pigs grew healthy and in a hygienic way. Cows provided meat. For about 50 years, Saint Isidore farm became the heart of the island. Conversions increased and the faith of Catholics was boosted.

Since then however, Jeju has seen significant economic development, but for Fr McGlinchey, this has caused the degradation of the island's society.

"People then were more concerned with one another than now. People are more selfish now than then. Children were more respectful to elders," he lamented.

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