Fr PJ McGlinchey: Resourceful missionary 'made a Donegal' of South Korean island
THE Irish word ‘meitheal' describes the old rural tradition where neighbours come together to help with each other's farming work, be it the bog, the hay or other crops.
It is the spirit of the cooperative, of community, and it is one exported more than 5,000 miles from Donegal to South Korea where a remarkable missionary priest is celebrated as a national hero.
When Fr Patrick James McGlinchey arrived on the volcanic island of Jeju at the end of the Korean War in 1953, he found a poverty-stricken people who still worked fields with wooden ploughs and oxen.
Thousands of the population had been massacred in an anti-Communist campaign a few years earlier and Eamonn McKee, former Irish ambassador to Seoul, said there was no running water and barely any electricity.
“He was a striking figure, six-foot tall with tousled brown hair and a handsome Irish face,” he said.
“While driven by his sense of spiritual mission, Fr PJ was also an intensely practical man.
“Aside from pastoral care, he took stock of the appalling privations and began a life devoted to employment projects: manufacturing and agricultural undertakings that offered work, skill development and hope to the inhabitants.”
The Columban Missionary established a large farm on underused land and imported cattle, pigs and sheep, drawing on the expertise of his father, an agricultural adviser back home.
A textile factory was established, which produced blankets modelled on Donegal tweed and at one point employed 1,700 Jeju women.
He also set up a credit union and put in place new healthcare facilities and school buildings.
In 1972 President Park Chung Hee awarded him the Order of Industrial Service Merit and the government made a TV documentary about him entitled The Sheep and Pig Farmer.
He was also a recipient of Ireland's and Korea's presidential distinguished service awards.
PJ McGlinchey was born in the village of Raphoe in 1928 and brought up in Letterkenny.
He entered the Missionary Society of St Columban in Dalgan Park in Co Meath and was ordained in 1951.
Fr Cyril Lovett of the Columban Regional Council in Ireland described him as “a charismatic character and a born leader”.
Donegal TD Pat ‘the Cope' Gallagher said he witnessed first-hand the tremendous work carried out by Fr McGlinchey.
“Words will never best describe how the islanders felt about Fr PJ. For them he was the saviour of the island and the man who made life possible for thousands of people,” he told the Donegal Democrat.
“A man who may have been posted miles from his native Donegal but in reality made a Donegal out of the Island of Jeju – using the spirit of the co-operative movement and the meitheal.”
Fr PJ McGlinchey died in Jeju aged 89 on April 24.