Thursday 25 December 2014

Korean war stories never to be forgotten

A new RTE documentary reveals the horror of the Irish missionaries who suffered brutal torture in Korea, writes Donal Lynch

ATROCITY: Thousands died from starvation, disease or during the agonising death marches during the Korean War

It was a moment of unbearable tension for Bishop Thomas Quinlan as the long Korean War drew to an end in the early summer of 1953.

The Irishman had already faced death and torture during the war which had claimed the lives of his friends. But he had faced those threats with equanimity -- because his life during those days seemed hostage to fate and the whim of his North Korean guards.

This was different though.

It was his last encounter with a man known because of his murderous tendencies as the Tiger, a man who had led thousands of international prisoners of war, including Quinlan and several other Irish priests, on a brutal nine-day march, which had resulted in hundreds of deaths.

American prisoners of war giving accounts of the march described how the Tiger personally machine-gunned down 16 men who had been too frail to walk and of having to pour boiling water onto their suppurating wounds after they were denied medical care. Now, with the war tapering to an end and the country to be divided along the famous 38th parallel, the notorious sadist had come to say goodbye to the prisoners whose lives he had made hell.

Quinlan's fear -- he told his close friend Fr Gerard Marinan -- was that he would be forced to shake hands with this man, something his conscience would not allow. On the other hand, he knew that a refusal to take The Tiger's hand would be perceived by the Korean guards as an unforgivably calculated insult and would probably mean Quinlan would be the last man to die at The Tiger's hand. That would be a gallingly pointless end, considering all he had already endured.

He breathed a silent prayer and it was answered. After an agonising wait, The Tiger made do with a formal bow and departed. For Marinan, the attitude to the handshake summed up Quinlan.

"He was a man of principle," Marinan wrote. "And of nobody could it be more truly said that he had the courage of his convictions. He was a big man in every sense. He had big ideas with the physical strength and endurance to match them. He gave unsparingly of himself. He loved the poor and they in turn recognised him as a true friend."

Quinlan and the other Columban Fathers were never supposed to have been in Korea. They had grown up in an Ireland mired in its own political foment. While still seminarians at St Patrick's College, Thurles, the First World War was building to a bloody conclusion. The Easter Rebellion of 1916 had changed all utterly and while Sinn Fein rose to power in Ireland, Rome had set its sights on the Far East.

It had been decided that a mission would be set up rapidly in China, so the Vatican pressed for Quinlan and three of his classmates to be quickly ordained. So, in March 1920, the four men -- all in their 20s -- became known as the "boy missionaries". Travelling by sea and over land, it would take six months for them to reach Han -yang province in China.

As with most Columban missions in those years they arrived eager to proselytize and indeed, at Christmas, they did baptise their first Chinese convert. But it was instantly clear that the Chinese had more pressing needs. The country was experiencing widespread famine. Twenty million people were in danger of starving to death while hundreds of thousands were wandering the country in search of food. There was mass emigration, widespread despair and suicide was common.

Quinlan became fluent in several Chinese dialects. He got first-hand knowledge of the many natural disasters that China was plagued by -- floods and famine. From 1926 onwards they also had war and the rumours of war to contend with.

In October of that year Quinlan wrote, "The fighting has thrown everything out of gear. Between war and the awful floods this summer we are facing into a right hard winter. The floods ruined all of Mianyang. The whole population is on the move. The Catholics look to us for help, espeically in caring for young girls who could be in danger if they went begging."

Jingoism and xenophobia were rampant in China and the climate was dangerous for foreign workers and diplomats. Headlines from British newspaper reports on China in the late Twenties include: "Outbreak of anti- foreign sentiment in China; All foreigners, including missionaries in danger; British forces driven out of Hankow; Missionaries and mission property attacked by mobs".

Fr Marinan wrote: "Gangs of bandits or Communists or just undisciplined mobs, roaming the country almost at will and wreaking havoc wherever they went. The people were terrorised, ever ready to abandon their possessions and take to their heels. The priests shared these dangers and learned to be constantly vigilant."

In 1930 two of Quinlan's priests, Frs Patrick Laffan and James Linehan were captured by one such mob and held prisoner for months in appalling conditions; beatings, malnutrition and disease became the norm. Quinlan negotiated their release but after another crisis in which another priest, Fr Cornelius Tierney was taken captor and died, Quinlan returned to Ireland, emotionally and physically exhausted.

His experience, adaptability and fluency in Chinese meant that after just a year he was once again called up to return to the Far East, this time to Korea.

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