My Korea: 40 Years Without a Horsehair Hat

My Korea: 40 Years Without a Horsehair Hat

by Kevin O'Rourke


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Part memoir, part miscellany, My Korea is based on the author’s forty-five years of cross-cultural experience in Korea which he witnessed emerging from its primitive culture of the 1960s to its position as a modern, dynamic state and one of the major players in world economics today. For new arrivals and old hands alike, it provides a humorous, anecdotal introduction to the “Land of the Morning Calm”—everything, in fact, a foreigner needs to know to survive and even thrive in an alien culture.

Essays, poems, and stories illustrate life in old Korea, from the classical Yangban’s Tale, which shows class distinctions in traditional society, to the hilarious Hogyun’s Tale, which shows how a business man should approach the problem of making money in Korea. There are essays on Confucianism and Buddhism and on Korean language and Korean literature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781898823094
Publisher: Renaissance Books
Publication date: 07/01/2013
Pages: 340
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Kevin O'Rourke, professor emeritus (Kyunghee University), Irish priest (Columban Fathers), who has lived in Korea since 1964. He has translated classical and contemporary fiction and poetry including Tilting the Jar, Spilling the Moon (Dedalus 1993), Poems of a Wanderer: Selected Poems of So Chongju (1995), Looking for the Cow (1999), the Yi Munyol novella Our Twisted Hero (2001); The Book of Korean Shijo (2002); A Hundred Love Poems from Old Korea (2005), and The Book of Korean Poetry (2006).

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My Korea

Forty Years Without a Horsehair Hat

By Kevin O'Rourke

Global Books Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Kevin O'Rourke
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-898823-34-6



You really had to see Korea in the sixties to know what it was like. Korea time was the conceptual axis on which the culture turned. Modernization and the need for quick decisions have done away with this lovely, lazy, exasperating way of life. If you couldn't do something today, there was always tomorrow, or the next day, or next week. If you know some Korean, ask yourself when was the last time you heard the word kulp'i – two days after tomorrow! So Chongju describes this old-time world:

Two Ascetics Meet on Sosul Mountain

Kwan'gi lived in his grass hut on the southern peak of Sosul Mountain, Tosong lived in a cave on the northern side; they were close friends and often travelled the intervening ten li to visit each other. Their arrangements to meet were not according to our rigid norms of year, month, day and hour, but were based on a much more refined standard. When the fresh breeze blew from the north, not too strong and not too weak, and the leaves on the trees leaned to the south, Tosong in the north followed that breeze toward Kwan'gi on the southern peak, and Kwan'gi, refreshed by the breeze, would come out to meet him. And when the wind blew fair in the other direction, and the leaves on the trees leaned toward the north, Kwan'gi on the southern peak set out to visit Tosong on the northern peak, and Tosong, seeing how the breeze blew, would come out to meet his friend. Can't you hear the Immortals laugh?

So Chongju (1915–2000)

Arriving in Korea is etched in my memory like a scene from a Somerset Maugham story. Ireland in the 1960s understood the Tosong-Kwan'gi notion of time; my group was a month late getting here. Frank McGann, complete with straw hat and cigar, met us at Kimpo airport and gave us our first introduction to the land of the morning calm. Frank was an old hand – he had been here since Japanese times; in fact he had been under house arrest in Hongch'on during the Pacific War. Grannies' eyes light up with delight to this day when they recall Frank handing out American candy to kids in Hongch'on. We drove from Kimp'o to Columban Headquarters in Tonamdong by a long tortuous route, some of which was paved, more of it unpaved, all of it full of potholes, diversions and various minor discomforts. I remember soldiers and military hardware everywhere. Very little of Korea's extraordinary five-thousand-year cultural tradition appeared to the eye: there were no laughing Immortals, no beautiful temples. We didn't see South Gate that day, and Kwanghwamun Gate had not yet been rebuilt. The taste of a vague unease was like grit under our teeth. Seoul was ugly. There is no other word for it. Ramshackle and ugly: narrow streets, building sprawled on building, house jammed on house; one false rub of the jeep on low slung eaves and you could take most of the block with you. A jeep once swiped a hundred yards of houses in Songjongni in Cholla. And I was there the night a brand new Toyota land cruiser knocked a retaining wall in Soyangno in Ch'unch'on sending chicken feathers flying two storeys down. The New Korea Hotel, a ten storey highrise, towered over the downtown area. The tram tracks on Chongno were painful to drive across. There were not too many vehicles around: the taxis were mostly the old shibal variety, rebuilt war surplus Russian jeeps. The first Datsun Bluebirds had just been introduced and were destined to dominate. Apart from these, there was a profusion of hapsung minibuses and the rather limited tram system.

No one said anything, but there was visible relief as we swung through the huge Chinese gates that guarded the Tonamdong compound of the Columban Fathers. I learned much later that the property had been a geisha house, hence the lovely Japanese garden. The North Koreans requisitioned the house during the Korean War, and they left behind an upright piano, which in subsequent years was the occasion of so much celebration that a parsimonious superior decided to sell it.

We were met on the steps.

'Welcome to Korea, lads. School begins tomorrow at one o'clock.'

It wasn't exactly what we had in mind, but Roma locuta est, and anyway it was nice to be here.



The Columbans are a society of missionaries, founded in Ireland in 1916, with home houses in Australia, Britain, Ireland, New Zealand and the US. In recent years we have ordained quite a few Columbans from our mission territories and they are the hope of the future. Our founding vision was to work in evangelization among the Chinese, but we were forced by circumstances to branch out in East Asia and South America. In the 1920s and 1930s, we were a suspicious lot to the British authorities. Documents recently released by the British government show that British diplomats in the Far East viewed us with singular suspicion: they saw us as an organization of Sinn Feiners, bent on the destruction of British institutions. It makes amusing reading today. The last Columban priest in China was expelled in 1953. Anticipating what was coming, the society expanded into the Philippines, Burma, Japan and Korea. In the 1960s, prompted by a call from the Pope, the Columbans moved into South America.

In 1964 I came to Korea as a Columban.


At eighteen I joined the army.
At twenty-four I was commissioned.
I came to this foreign place,
which I learned to love as I love my life.
I gave it my best years
and I was rewarded with love and affection.
Eighty years have passed.
The bells of jubilee ring out.
My spirit rests under mounded grass.
For the remnant it's time to go;
a bleak prospect, I suppose.
Weeds cover the yards of home;
pigeons nest among broken tiles.
But behind the cathedral in Ch'unch'on,
on the hill in Hongch'on,
in the dead fields of Seoul –
friends' forever beds –
in Cholla and in Chejudo
something Christlike lives.
May it ever be so!

By any standards, the Columbans were an extraordinary group of men, especially those I call the men of old, who were mostly in their fifties or older when I got here in 1964. I look back now at these giant men, the lives they lived, the isolation and loneliness of their parishes, the Spartan conditions they endured, and I marvel at their strength. In my time in Kangwon Province, the most northerly part of South Korea, I never saw one of the old hands buy a new chair, or lay a new strip of carpet. Anything that was new came from younger men. In fact, the man who installed a flush toilet in his house – the first in a priest's house in the province – was almost excommunicated by the bishop for his wilful extravagance!

There are plenty of Korean priests now and quite a few Korean Columbans. Our role in Korea has changed greatly.

The men of old are gone. I mourn their passing:

The Men of Old

Giant men, they lived giant lives
though on something less than giant scale.
Over a cocktail I've heard them marvel
at the old French missionaries,
the guts, the endurance, the faith.
The French lack substance to me,
but these men are real; many of them I knew,
and those I didn't are mythically mine,
warp and woof of the Columban thing
with which I identify.
I marvel at these earthen vessels:
lovely, misshapen, bulgy presences,
each a unique firing in the master kiln.
Moulded from the first earth,
they stand in stark contrast
to our peas in a pod times.
Theirs was a harsh theology:
the flesh the enemy, the battle bitter.
Yet the harshness of the moral view
was tempered by a humanity that shone
like the finest glaze, warm, familiar, true.
Selfless, crucified men,
they were their own Heaven and Hell:
only the innocent could be so.

Monsignor McPolin, a tall, thinking, iron man, was first ruler of the roost in 1933. He taught patrology in Dalgan Park, the Columban seminary in Ireland, when I was a student. Bishop Quinlan, old tyrant, leader of the Columban advance from Cholla to the northern province of Kangwon, was wise as an owl; he was loved, feared, and admired. His priests entertained him with salmon-trout, bananas, marmalade and bus loads of flattery and fuss; I always thought a tumbler of whiskey would have done as much. Harold Henry was the flamboyant bishop of Kwangju, the southern diocese, which was the first Columban territory in Korea. He was known in Dalgan Park as the Lucky Strike bishop because he invariably had a pack in his top pocket. Not the greatest of card players, his favourite gambit was to jump to three-no-trumps, which said much about his style and personality. Brian Geraghty, a Galway man, big in heart and deed, felt that salvation would be inevitable if he got the people to sit on seats rather than on the floor. P. Dawson, with his So Chongju style corncrake voice and infectious laugh, was a snooker player of real quality. He was famous for shouting sandpaper defiance at his Japanese jailors: he'd wash in no Jap water, he cried.

Pat was sentenced to five years imprisonment for spying and saying inappropriate things about the emperor. Of the second charge he was undoubtedly guilty. When he got to jail, he was asked 'Are you a bishop?' The query sought the reason for his five-year sentence whereas his two companions, T.D. Ryan and Jerome Sweeney, got three. The simple answer was that Pat's offensive remarks about the emperor probably rated a fifteen year sentence! Within the prison he wasn't any different. Assigned to clean the latrines, he always did the chore to the tune of the Japanese national anthem! Pat Dawson's real claim to fame was that he put innumerable Korean kids through school. I remember walking with him in Myongdong the last time he came back before he died – he was in his eighties. It took two hours to walk from the Midopa Department Store to Myongdong Cathedral. People ran out of every alley, fell to their knees and cried 'Shinbunim! Shinbunim! (Father, Father!)' tears gushing from their eyes. Daw, as we called him affectionately, was enormously embarrassed. I was humbled. I knew I was looking at a great missionary who would only be remembered by the people he had helped. Daw spoke panmal, low form, children's language. Cardinal Kim had a story about Bishop Quinlan telling a minister of state that he'd be talking panmal because that was all he knew and for the minister not to take offence but to talk panmal in return. I never knew Bishop Quinlan use panmal to adults. I think the cardinal was mixing him up with someone else. It could have been any one of half a dozen others. Our collective language skills were not great. In a famous speech, one of our more colourful parish priests lumped together the governor of the province, the city mayor and the county chief under the generous heading of yorogaji yangban (assorted gentry)! T.D. Ryan, a laughing Buddha priest, was skilled in all the wily ways. He was noted for keeping a special section in his notebook titled 'Words not to be remembered.'

Next, the martyrs, a special group, I know them only by repute: Tony Collier shielded his catechist from a bullet in Ch'unch'on. Tony died but the catechist lived. Paddy Reilly, betrayed by his hairy arms, was shot to keep an accountant's books straight – there weren't supposed to be any foreigners north of Mukho, a town on the East Coast. The communists made sure Paddy didn't disturb the bookkeeping. Jim Maginn sent a boy to get a battery for his Zenith radio in Samch'ok and was apprehended as a result. Frank Canavan, of Death March fame, died just before he was due to be freed. He had his final wish: Christmas dinner in heaven. Monsignor Brennan, Tom Cusack, and Jack O'Brien, were part of the holocaust inventory in Taejon; their remains were never found.

Bishop Quinlan, Phil Crosbie and Frank Canavan were the three Columbans on the Death March. Phil Crosbie tells the story in Three Winters Cold, and it is a gripping read. It was translated into Korean in 2004. Philip Deane, a journalist, who also experienced the Death March tells his story in I Was a Captive (1953). Deane gave a talk in Dalgan Park some years ago. He told of a day in North Korea when George Blake, the famous (or infamous) triple agent (British, Russian, and Israeli) came in from the yard where a North Korean captain had just shot an ailing American soldier. Blake, who was reputedly a good linguist, began to curse in a dozen languages. He cursed God, the world, the war, the cruelty of men. Bishop Quinlan put his arms around him and said gently, 'That's enough, that's enough, George! If I had had a son, I'd have wanted you to be him.' Then he turned to Philip Deane and said, 'Sorry, Philip, you'd have had to be content to be number two.' It's a Zen moment in the history of the Columbans, pure poetry.

There were so many characters: Pat Deery, who built the cathedral in Wonju, renowned for imprecating his love of the bishop; Frank Woods, a hugely popular foxhole chaplain and hunter supreme; anyone fool enough to shoot the lead goose – and there often was one – risked the scorn of this intrepid priest.

Tom Kane, a noted wit and contributor to the word hoard, coined many of the popular Konglish expressions in use among us; the roll of the tongue, he said, controlled the dice of language.

And finally, a vessel from a later firing, the most cultivated man of all, Dick Delaney.


He was a saint; a brilliant man
buried in the back of beyond.
He had no attachment to material things.
He loved his general factotum,
he loved Jesus and he loved a shot.
His only other concession to this world
was his insistence on a cigar
to ease his morning business out.

Dick was one of the best read men I've ever known. He spent his life in a mouldy Cleary's suit, puffing the odd cigar, deep in his beloved books. A Korean priest once said, 'There was only one priest ever in P'ungsuwon.' It was a magnificent tribute, one I never heard given to another missionary, especially since the parish was one of the oldest in the country and had produced more priests than any other parish. Dick was dearly loved. The fact that he only had fifty Korean words in his vocabulary was irrelevant. He radiated the light of heaven wherever he went and everyone felt its warmth. He is clearly out of season in this company because he came later in life after a career as a professor in Dalgan. The men who knew him there said he was a boring prof, but when he talked about a book he liked over a few whiskies, he was wonderful. On reflection, it was only when Dick came on a visit to Songshim College in Ch'unch'on that he had an audience for his inner world. I include him because he epitomized what was best in the earlier giants. More than once he lost his month's maintenance in a poker game and smiled.

Spring Scents

Spring scents fade:
the glory of these men too
is a diminished thing, a memory
fast fading in the hearts of a few.
I record the names
of these priests of Melchizedek.
I record them for the succeeding
generations of Columbans,
lest we forget.
And I record them for the succeeding
generations of the people they served,
lest they forget.

And there were so many great stories. One of my favourite stories describes two men storming into Hoengsong at the outbreak of the war in 1950:


The commies are coming,
the commies are coming!
We'll stay, we'll stay
for Christ and glory!
Bejazus we won't.
We're getting our butts in gear;
we're getting to hell out of here.
Fourteen chickens wrapped
the front axle of the jeep as it pulled into Hoengsong.
Funny how a bottle of whiskey and a friend
could dull even the most imminent threat.

The Hoengsong incumbent refused to budge. 'First things first,' he said, 'there's a bottle to be drunk: then we're off.' Seoul fell before they left. They had to find an alternative road south, which they duly did.

Then there was Pat MacGowan, alone in the records for keeping a cardinal out. This was the result of a failure in communication between Pat and Paul Ch'oe, a Seoul priest who enjoyed our company. Pat's Korean wasn't great. He spent most of his language study time trying to figure out the accusative case. This wasn't much help because Korean doesn't have cases. Anyway, the result was that the cardinal was kept waiting in the yard. Paul Ch'oe did not believe it was a mistake, but it was. Mistakes like this were easy because Pat guarded his sitting room and kitchen like the Bastille.


Excerpted from My Korea by Kevin O'Rourke. Copyright © 2013 Kevin O'Rourke. Excerpted by permission of Global Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1.KOREA IN THE 1960s,
11.CHILMAJAE SONGS – So Chongju,

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