Entrepreneurial Donegal priest who achieved national celebrity in Korea

Obituary Fr PJ McGlinchey : Columban Father spent over 60 years on the volcanic island of Jeju

Fr PJ McGlinchey: was renowned for his cheery disposition, wicked sense of humour and “can-do”.

Fr PJ McGlinchey: was renowned for his cheery disposition, wicked sense of humour and “can-do”.


PJ McGlinchey

Born: June 6th, 1928.

Died: April 23rd, 2018

As an optimistic new chapter in a divided Korea’s history opened on Friday April 27th when the North’s Kim Jong-un met the Southern President, Moon Jae-in, a revered Irish priest of the Missionary Society of St Columban was buried after a State Mass on the island of Jeju, 70 miles off the south’s mainland. Indeed, President Moon Jae-in would have attended the wake of Fr PJ McGlinchey, aged 89, from Raphoe, Co Donegal, had he not been attending the historic summit of the two leaders in the demilitarised zone defined by the 1953 armistice.

Today when esteem for priesthood has slumped in Ireland on account of the clerical paedophile scandals, Fr PJ McGlinchey stands out as a legendary personification of the missionary spirit which inspired the founding of the Society of St Columban 100 years ago – amazingly, only a decade longer than the Donegal cleric’s own lifespan.

Renowned for his cheery disposition, wicked sense of humour and “can-do”; approach to the trinity of prayer, business and social action, the tall, rugged and athletic young McGlinchey joined the Columbans in 1945 and was ordained six years later. His first - and sole assignment after learning the language - was to the South Korean diocese of Kwangju. He spent the remainder of his long mission from 1953 on the volcanic island of Jeju.

Hungry mouths

At the outset, PJ’s parish had a population of 40,000, but only 25 Catholics for whom he built a stone church. Soon he became convinced that mere preaching did not feed hungry mouths. Knowledge gleaned from his father, Patrick’s advice to Donegal farmers to become self-enterprising in the spirit of Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher’s co-operative movement was put to effect. Today, there are 4,500 Catholics.

Yet, while Jeju became his life’s mission, Letterkenny was never far from his mind. Mary Hannigan of The Irish Times sports department, whose father was a first cousin of PJ remembers him visiting her family home in Dublin.

“He was on his way to Germany to buy steel sheds and machinery that were to be shipped to Jeju for the farmers. When I asked my parents why a priest was buying steel sheds, as that wasn’t what any priest I knew tended to do, My Ma and Da told me, ‘he’s no ordinary priest’.

They always said he was an entrepreneur who happened to have a deep faith, so his work was a combination of the two. He was one of those people who made you feel anything was possible after spending time in his company, his outlook on life was endlessly cheery, if he saw a problem he just set about fixing it.”

Well-known family

PJ was the last surviving member of the well-known McGlinchey family in Letterkenny. His father Patrick was a vet and his mother Sarah, nee O’Boyle, came from Rutland Island off Burtonport, the scene of Napper Tandy’s inglorious invasion from France in 1798. He was pre-deceased by his brothers, Bernard, a former Fianna Fail Senator, Danny, John and Tim and his sisters Eileen, Jo, and ‘Bridgerie’ (Bridget Mary). With him at his death were nieces, Aifric, Anne and Lisa, and nephew, Ray.

Bernard would regularly post videos to him and his fellow priests in Jeju. “They were usually Westerns, their favourites were John Wayne movies. But occasionally Bernard would send videos of the Pope saying Masses or giving sermons on the mistaken assumption that these videos would thrill them. When they opened up the packages and discovered the Pope, rather than John Wayne, expletives would fill the air. PJ’s laughter could nigh on be heard back in Donegal,” according to Hannigan.

In 1972, PJ became a national celebrity in Korea, honoured by President Park Chung Hee “in recognition of his contribution towards helping promote the nation’s livestock industry.” The government made a documentary of his work, a worthy epitaph for a mighty Donegal priest.

In 2014 President Michael D Higgins awarded him the Presidential Distinguished Service Medal.