Monday 18 December 2017

Fr Pat has witnessed the tension of Korea

maria pepper

Fr Pat O’Connor
Fr Pat O’Connor

As world leaders respond to the nuclear threat emanating from Pyongyang in North Korea, a rural Wexford priest is taking a special interest in political developments there.

Fr. Pat O' Conor, the new curate in Mulrankin-Tomhaggard, spent 11 years as a Columban missionary in South Korea from 1959 to 1970 under a constant threat of invasion by the North.

He last visited the country 25 years later in 1995 for a religious conference.

But South Korea and its people hold a special place in his heart.

'I always try to keep in touch with what is happening there. I would always pray for peace,' said Fr. O' Conor who was born in the Old Pound in Wexford town, the ninth of 10 children of Patrick O'Connor and Nellie Frizelle.

The family moved to Cork the year he was born and after finishing school, he joined the Columban Fathers.

Following his ordination at 25, he was assigned to Korea. where he spent his formative years as a priest in the country, learning the language and absorbing the culture.

He has never forgotten the experience and maintains an affinity with the people of South Korea, where he served first in the Northern Province of Kangwondo in a parish called Hoeng Seong.

'We still have priests there and most of my contact now would be through them,' he said.

'During my time, there was a constant sort of threat of invasion by North Korea but people got on with their lives as they are doing now.

'There was a curfew every day, from midnight to 4 a.m for security reasons because they were always aware that the north could invade at any time.

'There was also the danger that spies from the north would make their way south.

'One of the precautions the southern army took was to rake the beaches smooth every night before curfew and build little cairns of stones just above high water mark.

'In the morning these were inspected and if they found footprints or any disturbance of the stones there would be a great hue and cry,' he said.

The president of South Korea at the time was Syngman Rhee.

'He ruled like a dictator although it was nominally a democracy.

'While we were still trying to learn the very difficult Korean language, the university students led an uprising against him and elections followed.'

'Soon after, the army which was the second largest in the free world at the time, took over.

When he arrived in 1959, it wasn't long after the Korean War. There was widespread hunger and poverty and a pervading sense of danger and unease.

The economic situation in South Korea has improved dramatically since then but the tension continues.

'There wasn't the nuclear threat. That is different but I think it's a bigger concern for the rest of the world thatn the people of South Korea in their everyday lives although at the same time it is a threat.'

As a foreigner in South Korea, Fr. Pat was constantly shadowed by an intelligence agent wherever he went.

'National security was everything but then the Americans have the same approach. We just see it differently,' he said.

Fr. Pat was astounded to see how much South Korea had advanced when he returned for a gathering of the Columban Fathers General Chapter in 1995.

'The difference was amazing. Everything was so efficient. It was very impoverished when I was there.'

After leaving South Korea Fr. Pat served in America, Australia and the U.K before becoming House Manager in St. Columban's in Dalgan Park, Navan.

His recent arrival as curate in Mulrankin-Tomhaggard has been greeted with a warm welcome by parishioners after a gap of some years without a priest.

'I am looking forward to doing the best I can for the people here,' said Fr. Pat, whose grandfather N.J. Frizelle was a journalist with the Wexford People before becoming County Secretary with Wexford County Council.

An in-depth interview with Fr. Pat about his experience in South Korea is published in the latest edition of the Kilmore Journal.

Wexford People

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