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The Irish Contribution to Joseon Korea
Tales from history in honor of St. Patrick's Day on March 17
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2007-03-10 17:21 (KST)   
In 1882, Korea opened three of its ports to the West. Although there was a relatively large foreign settlement in Fusan (Busan), it was almost entirely populated by Japanese. The only exceptions were the few Chinese merchants who steadfastly attempted to make a living despite the Japanese merchants' sometimes physical objections, and a handful of Westerners who worked with the Korean Customs Department.

Wonsan, now in present-day North Korea, was pretty much the same: the main foreign population was Japanese. It was only in Chemulpo (modern Incheon), and later Seoul, that there was truly a mix of Westerners in Korea.

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Most of the early Westerners were American, English, German, French, Russian, and a few Italians, and many of them are well known to the casual scholar of Korean history. However, in light of this coming St. Patrick's Day, I thought it might be interesting to look back at one group of Westerners that very little is known about -- the Irish.

Arguably the first Irishman to live in Korea arrived in Seoul in the mid 1890s. His name was John McLeavy Brown, and he was a lawyer by trade, but was employed with the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs Department.

Brown was described as a "learned man" with a personal library of nearly 7,000 books -- an extraordinary number considering it was the 1890s and books were much harder to obtain. He had sunken eyes, a heavy Edwardian moustache and walked with a cane that he occasionally used to thump some sense into those he felt were disrespectful.

He was sent to Korea by Sir Robert Hart to manage Korea's Customs Department, and performed so well that King (later Emperor) Kojong granted him control of Korea's finances. It was through Brown's dedication to duty and common sense that Korea was able to straighten out its financial problems.

Of course, not all were pleased that Brown wielded so much power with Korea's finances. In 1896, several Korean officials in finance were relieved of their positions by a high Korean official and replaced with his friends. Brown refused to pay their salaries and eventually had the other officials returned to their positions.

One English visitor described Brown as "a big striking oldish man, Irish, with a most engaging manner and a heart of gold, and who, under Providence rules Korea." Although the visitor exaggerated when she claimed Brown ruled Korea, he did, nonetheless, wield a great amount of power which eventually led to some international trouble.

In 1901, Russia tried to take a more active role in Korea's internal affairs. A Russian adviser was sent to assume Brown's position as controller of Korea's finances -- this was not readily accepted by the British government who did not relish the usurpation of its powerful position by the Russians. A large flotilla of British warships were summoned and lurked in Korean waters while negotiations were conducted to alleviate the situation before it escalated into possible war.

Horace Allen, the American Minister to Korea, said in a personal correspondence to one of the American businessmen in Chemulpo that he had heard rumors that Brown was going to be dismissed from his position because he would not allow Emperor Kojong access to his own money. Eventually the issue was resolved and Brown retained his position but was warned to be more accommodating to the Emperor's desires.

After the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Japan achieved supremacy in Korea's affairs and eventually began to consolidate its power by removing other foreign advisers in the Korean government's service. Like most of the Western advisers and staff, Brown left Korea in 1905, but unlike most of them, he left a legacy -- the first modern park in Seoul (Pagoda Park).

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There were a few other early Irishmen in Korea, but they are not remembered favorably by history. John Flanagan was an Irish-American who enjoys the dubious honor of being the first American convicted in a Consular Court in Korea. In August 1898, an old American merchant in Chemulpo by the name of George Lake, was discovered dead in his bed. William Franklin Sands, an employee of the American Legation in Seoul, was sent to investigate:

"[T]he body was evidently diseased but [we] still searched it for signs of foul play. [We] found no foul play and the British doctor that did the autopsy agreed that his death was from natural causes."

But the doctor's opinion was not accepted in the United States, and through political pressure from a senator in Massachusetts, the cause of death was ruled murder. Subsequently John Flanagan was accused, tried, and convicted of the crime and was sentenced to life in prison. For nearly three years he languished in a jail erected by Horace Allen with his own money. Flanagan was eventually moved to San Quentin prison in California where he was retried and found innocent. The day he was released, San Francisco was devastated by a powerful earthquake and Flanagan later wrote Allen, who he did not bear a grudge against, and told him that he had been released from prison in time to see the world end.

Another notorious figure, who really lived up to the stereotype of the "drunk fighting Irishman," was John O'Shea from Dublin, Ireland. He worked with a newspaper in Shanghai, China and came to Korea in late 1899 to help setup a newspaper supported by the Korean government. He was given the printing presses from the former English newspaper in Seoul, The Independent, and was charged with setting up a newspaper as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, he was a man who appreciated drink to an excess and was accused of being drunk every day. While drunk he often attacked the local population, beating them, and on occasions fired his pistol recklessly. The Korean government asked the British Minister, Jordan, to intervene and help it collect the wages that O'Shea owed to his staff, but Jordan refused. He claimed that the Korean government had hired O'Shea and it was the government's responsibility to ensure that he was a man of good virtues. Fortunately for Korea, O'Shea fled to Shanghai where, with the luck of the Irish, he was able to land the position of editor of the Shanghai Times in 1902 and then again from 1906-1911.

In the years since the early 1900s, many Irish have come to Korea -- and most of them have had a great and positive effect on Korea. It is interesting to note that Koreans have been referred to as "the Irish of Asia," and whether this is due to the suffering and perseverance of the country or the fondness for drink by its inhabitants I will let you, the reader, decide. Nonetheless -- Erin go bragh! -- Ireland forever!
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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