A Sheep, a Priest, and a Dark History

Today, I got angry at a sheep. 

I was actually angry at revisionist history, genocide, cultural ignorance, and colonialism. Just all symbolically embodied in a sheep.

Perhaps even this sheep!

Perhaps even this sheep!

Some context might be necessary…

Before we moved back to Korea, I heard a fanciful story about an Irish monk raising wooly ruminants somewhere on Jeju. I did not really believe this story. Given the humidity on the island, I couldn’t imagine anyone deciding wool was a good idea. But I promised to keep a lookout for monks cavorting with ungulates. 

Of course, I forgot. And for most of a year, that is how things stood. 

Then a few days ago, we stumbled across Baalamb Café and Farm. It’s a petting zoo/coffee shop. Korea has dog cafés and cat cafés—why not a sheep café? Customers frolick with the critters, then sip a latte and upload farm-adjacent selfies to instagram (kind of like these goofballs!). We enjoyed watching the young, urbanized clientele encounter sheep for the first time. 

But when we got home, I remembered the monk. If there were sheep, why couldn’t there be an Irishman?

With surprisingly little effort, I found the story of Father PJ McGlinchey. Father McGlinchey arrived on Jeju somewhere between 1952 and 1954 (depending on the source). He contributed to the economic development of the island in the aftermath of the Korean War, taught Irish livestock husbandry techniques, and set up communal farms. He also helped develop some of the first local credit unions and medical centers on the post-war island. 

By all accounts, Father McGlinchey was legitimately awesome. And infamously cranky. But this is no reason to get mad at sheep.

No, that happened when I started reading the good Father’s obituaries. The basics of their spin were familiar: a poor community devastated by war, and a priest whose life and mission contributed to its revitalization. 

But the details became a bit more bothersome. According to at least one article (though others dabbled in these, too), Jeju’s devastation had been the result of a massive communist uprising. 50,000 hectares of farmland in the island’s interior lay mysteriously unused. And until Father McGlinchey arrived and instilled can-do spirit, the locals only achieved the most primitive farming techniques and basic subsistence.

To explain why that irritates me to no end (apart from the obvious white savior narrative), I have to talk about Jeju’s history. Specifically Jeju 4.3.

The end of World War 2 also marked the end of the Japanese occupation.  It was an exciting time for Koreans. For the first time in a generation, they believed they were about to have a real say in their country’s future. 

They were wrong. The US and the USSR divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, ignoring the broad grassroots support for a single, unified government. This sparked a lot of anger, which grew exponentially when the US rehired infamous Japanese collaborators into police, government, and military positions. 

In response, the South Korean Labor Party organized peaceful protests for unification on March 1, 1947.  During the Jeju protest, a mounted policeman accidentally trampled and killed a child, sparking a riot during which soldiers fired into a crowd of unarmed civilians. 

Despite the circumstances, the South Korean provisional government decided the riot was evidence of a communist conspiracy. They didn’t have any proof beyond Jeju’s general opposition to their will. But they’d been put in power by a United States deep in the throes of the red scare—that same month, Truman established the Federal Employees Loyalty Program to vet the political leanings of government employees. As such, the provisional government began a program of illegal detention, torture, and persecution on Jeju island, in an attempt to root out enemy infiltrators. Over the course of the following year, the brutal treatment finally pushed the population into actual revolt, on April 3, 1948 (thus the name Jeju 4.3).

The US Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) declared Jeju an “island of reds” and the South Korean government began a bloody crackdown. Over the next six years, ten percent of the island’s 300,000 residents were killed. Seventy percent of their villages were burned. The population underwent forced relocation to the coast. Any civilian found more than five kilometers inland, for any reason, was considered an enemy combatant. But even in safe zones, they were indiscriminately slaughtered. Everyone was a target, from children to grandmothers.

According to the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park Museum, there were never more than a few hundred resistance fighters on the island. And there was never a significant political aspect to their activity, other than opposition to atrocity. Government-sanctioned hardliners committed almost all the violence by attacking civilians. The crackdown lasted throughout the Korean War, though repercussions would echo for decades.

This is the Jeju that Father McGlinchey arrived on in the early 1950s. All that unused farmland lay fallow because it had been seized and never returned. Farmers scraped by with tiny plots on the coast because the rest of the island was a no-go zone. (The restriction wasn’t lifted until late 1954.)

It wasn’t until 2000 that the South Korean government even attempted to grapple with this history by establishing the 4.3 Truth Commission. In 2006, President Roh Moo-hyun issued the first formal apology to survivors. In 2018 President Moon Jae-in reiterated that apology at the 70th anniversary memorial service. Yet the hardline political descendants of that first government are still, as of 2018, arguing that Jeju doesn’t even deserve that.

So I’m definitely not mad at Father McGlinchey. His efforts were extraordinary, though Jeju’s ultimate recovery came from many places—tourism and greatly expanded agriculture, for example. The island owes more to the constant work of local residents than the solitary action of a single priest, however inspiring he legitimately was. 

And if it comes right down to it, I suppose I’m not really mad at the sheep, either. I am mad at fawning retrospectives ignoring government violence, and employing a tired (arguably racist) savior narrative—the great western hero who brought wool and education to ignorant island natives. But as far as I’m aware, that’s not the fault of Father McGlinchey or his parishioners.

In the end, I suppose I’m most irritated by the fact that I went looking for a cute, wooly story and found something dark and mean and messy. 

But in a way, that also makes it more remarkable. Today, urban youth from the 11th largest economy in the world go to a sheep café to encounter farm animals for the first time. Their parents might have raised sheep. Their grandparents would have considered such creatures an undreamable luxury. But much of this generation has never even seen one outside photos.

And however it happened, I am suddenly awed by the magnitude of that accomplishment.



Want to learn more about Jeju 4.3? Here’s a link to the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation. Or you can check out Erin’s article about the uprising on Atlas Obscura.

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