Modest hero

Irish Ambassador to Korea, Aingeal O’Donoghue visited St Isidore Farm in February 2015, where she presented the Presidential Distinguished Service Award to Fr McGlinchey.Irish Ambassador to Korea, Aingeal O’Donoghue visited St Isidore Farm in February 2015, where she presented the Presidential Distinguished Service Award to Fr McGlinchey. Photos: © Missionary Society of St Columban

I first came across stories of the Columbans as a young boy when my father would return from trips to the Philippines or Peru and regale me with tales of these Irish missionaries in far off lands, working in often dangerous environments. It was at a time when few people in Ireland travelled to such distant places and it’s safe to say that the stories stayed with me. A seed was planted.

Years later, I began working in radio production. I contacted Columban Fr Malachy Smyth in Korea to ask about doing a story on Columban Fr Rufus Halley who had been shot dead in Malabang, Mindanao, Philippines, as he was returning home from a Christian-Muslim meeting, in what was an apparent kidnap attempt. I travelled to the Philippines to make the documentary and to see the work of the Columbans first hand. This was just the beginning; many more stories on the Columban Fathers and Sisters followed, and I’ve been proud to work with Malachy on many projects since.

It was while working on one of these projects that I came across Fr PJ McGlinchey, and his story like so many Columban stories, was fascinating. The problem was, however, that PJ wasn’t interested in a radio interview. Of course he’d do a piece here and there when he was obliged, but generally he had no desire for self-promotion or for his story to be told. He was true to the charism of the Columbans to go where the need is greatest and work with the people.

Road Mcglinchey

Entertaining a journalist who wanted to document his life’s work wasn’t his focus.

I tried, and I tried again, and eventually I had Fr Malachy as well as Fr Michael Riordan and a few others try on my behalf! Just travel I was told, PJ will do the interview if you’re there! So with a bit of planning and a bit of faith I travelled to Jeju to meet the elusive PJ McGlinchey!

Although he wasn’t very mobile, PJ came to the airport to meet me and smiled warmly as he greeted me, commenting on how much he enjoyed watching all the people passing by in Jeju’s hugely busy airport during its peak tourist season. It was only after finishing the documentary that I fully understood why PJ got such enjoyment from sitting in the airport that day.

When PJ arrived in Jeju after the Korean War, it was a country ravaged by famine. He had very little to offer the people other than his faith and hard work, and those he gave them in abundance.

Through a series of what PJ called divine interventions he was able to get support from a few key individuals and begin to build the communities from the ground up, the Columban way. His youth spent assisting his father on the farm in Letterkenny was to pay a dividend, as PJ’s agricultural and veterinary knowledge was to change the islanders’ lives forever.

I knew bits of his story from what I’d read and from speaking to others but I wanted to hear it from PJ in his own words. Of course, once I was settled into my accommodation and looked after, PJ set about passing me off to others to interview because PJ wasn’t interested in telling his story, he was too busy thinking about the next project or making sure everything was running smoothly, to linger on the past.

I met lots of great people who told me all about how PJ introduced a new method of pig farming to Jeju, how he was instrumental in changing the landscape through planting a new type of grass replacing a once-barren land with lush green fields. I learnt about his introduction of a new type of house in which to keep the pigs and sheep, how he set up a factory for young girls so they wouldn’t have to work in sweat shops on the mainland and how he worked with the Columban Sisters to set up a much needed clinic.

Of course, I insisted, and landed on PJ’s door everyday telling him I’d love to hear it in his own words and ever the gentleman he put up with me! With a youthful glint in his eye and a hearty laugh he spoke about his life enthusiastically before constantly reminding me that nobody would be interested in this.

He was wrong of course because PJ’s story is not just interesting, it is inspiring and that has been recognized as such by the people of Jeju and Korea many times over. This of course didn’t matter to PJ as his motivation was never personal or for any form of recognition, he was a man of deep faith and spoke passionately about the Gospel to me during our meetings.

He also spoke fondly about his other home, Donegal. He talked of the struggles of the people in Ireland during his youth and during the times that came before he was born and the hardship the Irish people endured as subsistence farmers under a colonial system. He drew a lot of comparisons with the people he encountered on Jeju and as he spoke about the work his father did when he was a boy, assisting famers in Donegal, I remarked that he seemed to be doing something similar for many years on a larger scale in a far-off island called Jeju. He laughed warmly before telling me that was enough talking because nobody would be interested in a silly story about this Donegal man, but I was, and so is everybody else who has heard it.

Rest in peace PJ.


Fr PJ McGlincheyFr PJ (Patrick James) McGlinchey died aged 89 on 23 April 2018 in the hospice he built on Jeju Island, South Korea. In June, South Korea posthumously awarded honorary citizenship to Fr McGlinchey. Presenting his nephew Raymond McGlinchey with the certificate, Korean Justice Minister Park Sang-ki stated, “I express my deepest gratitude to the late Fr McGlinchey for his noble humanism and the sacrifice he made for this country over the last 64 years.”

Brian Kenny is a documentary maker. He holds a BA in Media production and Management and an MSC in Technology and Learning. He made his first radio documentary in 2005 and has worked freelance since then, producing pieces for RTE Radio 1, Clare FM, Newstalk and Mid West Radio. ‘A Little Piece of Home – Donegal to Cheju’ which documented Fr PJ McGlinchey’s work in transforming the lives of the people of Jeju Island was broadcast on Highland Radio on Monday 7 May 2018.

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