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In 1972, the government of South Korea made a half-hour documentary entitled “The
Sheep and Pig Farmer”, which was broadcast nationally twice that year. It
highlighted the work of Fr. P.J. McGlinchey, a Columban missionary priest who had
been working on the Korean island of Jeju since 1953. Fr. McGlinchey had made
a difference to the life of Jeju that, a few months before the documentary aired,
South Korea’s President awarded him the Order of Industrial Service Merit. It was
one of many awards Fr. McGlinchey received throughout his life, including Ireland’s
Presidential Distinguished Service Award, which was conferred on him by President
Michael D. Higgins in 2014.
All this was a long way from the initial reaction of the people of Jeju towards Fr.
McGlinchey. “That crazy, red-headed foreigner” had been their description for him in
the early days.
Patrick James McGlinchey was born in the village of Raphoe, Donegal, in 1928. He
grew up in Letterkenny. He was the son of a veterinarian and one of his brothers,
Bernard, became a Fianna Fáil senator. Patrick joined the Missionary Society of St.
Columban in 1945, was ordained a priest in 1951, and was sent to Korea in 1952.
He spent a year learning Korean on the mainland before being posted to the island
On his arrival in 1953, Jeju (the largest island in Korea) was devastated after the
three-year Korean War. Eamonn McKee, a former Irish ambassador to South Korea,
describes the situation that greeted the young Fr. McGlinchey: “There was no
running water and electricity was only being introduced. The poverty was intense
and pervasive. Perhaps as many as thirty thousand of the 250,000 inhabitants had
been massacred in the 1948-49 anti-communist campaign. As part of the security
operations, some seventy per cent of the villages in the mountainous interior were
destroyed and their inhabitants driven to live on the coast.”
“The day I received my appointment was April Fool’s Day”, Fr. McGlinchey ruefully
recalled. “I was told that I had only one thousand dollars with which to build a church,
a rectory, and set up the entire parish.” There were only twenty-five Catholics in the
parish to which he was sent. When it came to building the church, he had to resort to
using timber from a local shipwreck. He made his way to the wreck with a heavy
heart. “When I arrived”, he recalled, “I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were around
four hundred people, waiting to carry the timber. They said they couldn’t just sit back
and watch the priest go through such a hardship on his own. Most of them were not
At this time, farmers on Jeju were still using antiquated techniques such as wooden
ploughs. Fr. McGlinchey struggled to persuade them to adopt modern and more
efficient farming practices. “The first Korean I learned”, he recalled, “was ‘an-deop-ni-
da’.” (This means, “No, it won’t work”!)
Fr. McGlinchey was not deterred. He set up a local branch of 4H, an international
organization that trained young people in new agricultural techniques. In 1961 he
established Isidore Farm, which was initially a cattle ranch. Today it has become the
Isidore Development Association, and includes a kindergarten, a nursing home, a
hospice for the dying, and more. In his six decades on Jeju, Fr. McGlinchey also
established a weaving factory, a credit union (the first on Jeju), and a shrine named
the Hill of Grace. The Hill of Grace includes life-size bronze statues depicting the life
of Christ, a large stone church in the shape of a Celtic cross, and a retreat house.
“I never wanted to give up”, Fr. McGlinchey told the website Korean.net in 2014.
“First of all, I believe everything I’ve done was planned by God, not me.”
A few years after Fr. McGlinchey’s arrival, whole villages on the island were seeking
instruction in the Catholic faith. Today, it is home to over sixty thousand Catholics.
Fr. McGlinchey became something of a celebrity, not only in Korea, but also in
Ireland. He appeared on the Late Late Show in 1970 and, the following year, RTE
broadcast a series of radio documentaries about his experiences.
P.J. McGlinchey died in April 2018, on the island of Jeju, in the hospice he had
founded. He had served more than sixty years in Korea. “He was always a pastor
first and foremost”, said Fr. Cyril Lovett of the Columban Regional Council in Ireland, “spreading the good news of Christ’s kingdom by his own activities