CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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An Irish celebration on Chinese soil

HONG KONG (SE): The Irish community of Hong Kong celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in grand style, beginning with a two-day crafts and culture exhibition on March 10 and 11 at the Comix Homebase in Wan Chai followed by the St. Patrick’s Festival Parade through the streets of Tamar on March 12.

In getting the word out that St. Patrick’s Day is on the map in Hong Kong and Macau, the consul general, Peter Ryan, ran a drawing competition among school students in the two cities, asking for images of an imagined St. Patrick.

The diplomat described the result as excellent, with hundreds of entries coming back, especially from the two St. Patrick’s schools in Hong Kong, adding that they demonstrate the vivid imaginations of some students, as well as their technical and artistic ability in drawing.

The action proper got going with the cultural exhibition, which offered demonstrations on woodturning and carving, copper, slate and Ogham writing, and block printing, as well as displays on Irish movies and some social aspects of both history and current affairs.

The Ogham alphabet is an early mediaeval form of writing used in the Irish language up to about the sixth century. In the fifth century it was the medium for etchings, but evidence suggests that it predates this by several hundred years.

Copper and slate were popular materials for carving inscriptions of historical antidotes and craftsmen developed rather sophisticated skills in their preparation.

Woodturning and carving is an age-old art in Ireland that uses the natural grain of the wood to display its beauty and block printing became a well-developed art and industry from the earliest days of print material.

By far the most spectacular event was the grand parade involving over 700 people from some 38 groups, as well as several bands accompanying the Irish dancers that helped to turn Tamar Park into a sea of green.

The festival culminated on the feast day itself, March 17, with a Mass in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, laying of a wreath at the Cenotaph and a final reception.

As much as anything, St. Patrick’s Day in Hong Kong is a celebration of the vast diaspora that has spread from Ireland over the past few centuries across pretty well the whole world, making great contributions to the development of economies and culture in many places.

Father Mike Cuddigan described it as a celebration of being human, as well as being people of faith. He called it a day where the best of being Irish is celebrated along with the ability to live with joy among all people.

He pointed out that as a religious people, the Irish made no distinction between life in the marketplace and life in the Church, which the Columban missionary said he believes is what the success of migration throughout the ages can be attributed to.

He described Irish missionaries as understanding that the best way to preach was through their humanity, adding that on a day when the country celebrates its Irish spirit, it is appropriate to question what it is in people’s minds that sows such great goodness in human hearts.

This quality contributed to much more than its missionary success. A book introduced at the Comix Homebase on March 8 by London-born Irishman, Mark O’Neill, Ireland’s Imperial Mandarin: How Sir Robert Hart became the most influential foreigner in Qing China, illustrates this well.

O’Neill is a veteran of Asia, having worked as a foreign correspondent in several countries. He provided an interlude in the week of flurry to reflect on the makeup of Irish people that has given them the ability to contribute in so many ways in a wide variety of places.

Ireland’s Imperial Mandarin was Belfast-born Robert Hart. From a strong Methodist background, he in some ways represents the middle ground between the missionary and the business entrepreneur, as he combined the skills and spirit of both in carving out his most remarkable career in China.

Graduating from the newly-founded Queens College in 1853, Hart had seriously considered the life of a missionary, but doubting his ability to live up the moral level expected of that state, he gladly accepted an offer from the British government to study Chinese and go to China as a translator in Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service.

Benefitting from a request for translators to have a language ability upon arrival, Hart was invited to join the course and in the following year he embarked for China, bringing the rich religious background of his upbringing in the egalitarian Methodist faith with him.

He also differed from most British diplomats, as he was not from the elite classes and arguably lacked the superiority airs they mostly displayed.

Although life was tough, Hart prospered, achieving a rare fluency in Chinese, as well as a good command of diplomatic language.

His day-to-day work, coupled with regular pillow talk with the daughter of a fisherman was fertile ground for his fast developing linguistic skills, although the love affair was to haunt him for the rest of his life.

In 1863 he left the British diplomatic service to take up a position with the Chinese government as the founding inspector general of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, a position he fulfilled so capably that he continued to hold the post until he left China in 1908.

Unlike many of his diplomatic compatriots, Hart lacked a disdain for the Chinese. He held respect for them and behaved in a low key and quiet manner.

This, coupled with an appreciation of the Methodist outreach to all peoples saw him win strong support from influential friends in court.

He also had the trust to create a truly multicultural service, employing people from some 20 different nationalities, all of whom could speak and read Chinese, and by demanding high standards from local employees rewarded with good salaries, he bred both honesty and dedication in them.

The result was a non-corrupt and efficient customs service, which earned him respect from the government, as well as many enemies among the opium traders whose interests he had initially come to China to protect.

During his long and colourful career, he laid the foundations of a modern navy and manufacturing industry, as well as negotiating a peace between China and France, beginning a Chinese diplomatic corps and a successful postal service, most of which was paid for from the income generated by his customs office.

At one point, it provided up to one-third of government income, due as much to the corrupt nature of other departments as to his own efficiency.

But life was never easy or secure. He survived what is romantically known as the Fifty-Five Days at Peking blockade and escaped the worst ravages of bandits and the Boxer Rebellion.

But his life is a fine illustration of the best of Irish contribution to the fortunes of their adopted countries and, as Father Cuddigan pointed out, a good example of what can be achieved by the ability to live happily among people of different cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds.

O’Neill argues that no foreigner will ever again have the influence on the Chinese government that Hart had, for by combining his faith with marketplace savvy, together with remaining faithful to his struggle against his own temptations he became a son of Ireland worthy of being celebrated by the Irish community on the Chinese soil of Hong Kong.

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