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A Tale of Two Continents: Interview with Mark O’Neill, author of Out of Ireland

Discovering Irish Roots Across Continents: A Journey of Identity and Impact with Author Mark O’Neill.

Out of Ireland
Out of Ireland, Publisher: Earnshaw Books

Educated at prestigious institutions such as Marlborough College and New College, Oxford, Mark O’Neill embarked on a career as a journalist, spanning cities like Washington DC, Manchester, and Belfast. In 1978, he found his calling in Asia, working in various countries like Taiwan, India, China, Japan, and Hong Kong. Transitioning to authorship in 2006, Mark’s expertise lies in uncovering the stories of the Irish diaspora, intertwining his personal experiences with the broader Irish impact on the world. His 14th book, “Out of Ireland,” showcases Mark’s profound understanding of the Irish identity and its global influence. Mark specializes in tracing the Irish legacy through historical events, cultural exchanges, and personal accounts, unveiling the extraordinary contributions of Irish men and women in Asia. His meticulous research and engaging narrative style bring to life the stories of Irish missionaries, doctors, judges, lawyers, authors, and jockeys who have left indelible footprints on countries like Hong Kong, China, and Japan. Mark’s literary achievement in “Out of Ireland” reflects his remarkable expertise and unwavering commitment to unearthing the complex links between Ireland and Asia. With an emphasis on personal stories and anecdotes, he weaves a tapestry of Irishness that is both unique and deeply relatable to readers.

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What inspired you to write this book?

In 2019, I started to work with Irish consul-general David Costello on a history of the Irish in Hong Kong. It was a wonderful project. The story was almost unknown to us both. Ireland only became an independent country in 1922. So, before that date, those who came here from Ireland were, legally, British. Even after 1922 and the foundation of the Irish Free State, different people had different emotions. Some strongly supported the new country and were proud to call themselves “Irish”. Some were indifferent and some were hostile, preferring to call themselves “West Brit”. This led me to think about the Irish “identity”. What defines an Irish person – his place of birth, his family and education, his religion, his job and place in society? All this was relevant to my own family.

Image of Bobby Sands, an IRA prisoner who died in prison after a hunger strike
Image of Bobby Sands, an IRA prisoner who died in prison after a hunger strike
Father Desmond, drinking Guinness
Father Desmond, drinking Guinness

How does the history of Irish emigration shape the modern-day Irish identity, both at home and abroad? How have Irish people in different parts of the world preserved their cultural heritage and traditions?

Since 1841, the population of Ireland has declined. There are few, if any, countries in the world with a similar fall in population. As of 2022, the population of Ireland, North and South, was seven million, compared to 8.2 million in 1841. The rate of emigration from the 1840s until the 1970s was among the highest in Europe. Like all migrants, the Irish had to adapt to the language, customs and habits of their new country. Very few retained the Irish language but many retained their religion, their music, dance and singing and a sympathy for their ancestral home. A few years ago a friend who worked in the office of Irish Abroad in the Department of Foreign Affairs went with his minister to a gathering of emigres in Milwaukee in the U.S. – more than 100,000 people attended! Most had never been to Ireland but retained an affection for it. This sense of belonging was largely kept alive through music and singing and Irish clubs and churches in foreign countries.

What were some of the most significant challenges you faced during your journey to discover your Irish roots, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge in Northern Ireland in the 1970s was to learn from scratch. As I describe in the book, Father spoke little about his childhood and education. So, when I arrived in Belfast in 1975, I was blind and deaf; and it was the middle of the Troubles. I was rescued by dozens of kind people, who took pity on this handicapped person and taught him what he needed to know. Despite the violence and deep conflicts in the community, I met no hostility. I was able to access almost every corner of society – except for matters related to military operations by the British security forces and the different militia. What impressed me most was being able to join a choir in a Republican area largely controlled by the IRA. An Irish friend named Roisin McAuley provided the introduction, which was essential. I was able to cycle there two evenings a week, past the road blocks and army patrols, and join the practice. Everyone was most friendly to this outsider who had dropped out of the sky and spoke with the wrong accent. I expected to be taken into a small room by three armed men and interrogated on whether I was a British spy; but this never happened. These visits provided an invaluable understanding of the life and thinking of the Catholic community in Belfast. One weekend I went with several of the choir to see a football game in Glasgow of their favourite Celtic team; we had to take a stormy boat ride and slow train both ways. It was unforgettable.

IRA poster during the Troubles
IRA poster during the Troubles

Can you share any specific anecdotes from your journey that highlight the humor, personal connections, or unexpected discoveries you made while exploring the Irish diaspora in Asia?

In Chapter 10, we describe the work of the Irish in building the church in China. In spring 1986, we visited Faku, the small town in Liaoning province, northeast China, where Grandfather lived for over 40 years. There were many unforgettable moments. At 0500 one morning, I found Mr Zhao, the man who had cooked for Grandfather. He was sleeping on a bench in a bread factory in Faku. He woke up quickly and, at my request, wrote with pencil on a piece of paper the food he made for my grandparents more than 40 years before. They mostly preferred western food and Indian black tea with milk, as the Irish drink it, not the green tea preferred by Faku people. So every three months Mr Zhao had to make a long journey, by horse cart then train, to Shenyang to buy large boxes of Lipton tea. I also met the small number of Christians who had survived the Cultural Revolution and other persecutions. They were happy to see the grandson of the pastor who had brought the faith to Faku.  These encounters were very moving. The manager of the guest house we stayed in asked me to describe what Westerners had for breakfast; he had to prepare for the day they arrived in Faku and stayed in his guest house. “They like bread with jam and butter,” I said. He understood “bread” and “jam” but not “butter”. What was butter? In Chinese, you can say 牛油 (niu you, beef oil) or 黄油 (huang you, yellow oil). I tried these two words, but he had never seen butter. “If you have bread and jam, why do you need to add something else?” he asked. I could not answer. Since the children of Faku had never seen a “big-nose”, dozens of them followed me on the streets. I took them up to a hill with several large trees. I felt like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. If I asked them to climb the trees and jump off, they would have. They asked many questions, including: “your nose is so big, how do you breathe?” “Which opening do you use to eat with?” and “Does everyone in your country speak Chinese?” Of course I said “yes”, which made them very happy.

Reverend Jack Weir, formerly a missionary in Manchuria, at his home in Belfast, with the bed cover of Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China
Reverend Jack Weir, formerly a missionary in Manchuria, at his home in Belfast, with the bed cover of Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China

How did your understanding of your own Irish identity evolve throughout your journey, and what role did your encounters in Asia play in that transformation?

In Asia, I saw what Irish people had done abroad. The greatest contribution has been by the religious, Catholic and Protestant, in education, medicine, building churches, care for children, the elderly and the handicapped and welfare of many kinds. The work of Grandfather and the other Presbyterians in Manchuria was part of this enormous effort in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Until the 1970s, Ireland was a poor, agricultural country. But it nonetheless provided hundreds of priests, nuns, pastors and other missionaries who made these contributions that have benefitted millions of people. I was able to meet some of these people, learn of their extraordinary lives and marvel at their dedication. In addition, there have been doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects and other skilled people who have also contributed to their adopted countries. On the other side, these countries gave Irish people opportunities to build institutions and flourish in a way that they could not at home. The migration benefitted both the individuals and their new country.

Grandfather and Grandmother in front of their house in Faku, Liaoning province in the 1930s
Grandfather and Grandmother in front of their house in Faku, Liaoning province in the 1930s

How have the lives and experiences of Chinese immigrants in Ireland evolved over time, and what challenges have they faced in their pursuit of a better life in Ireland?

The early Chinese immigrants in Ireland, as in other countries, opened restaurants, retail shops and launderettes. They worked seven days a week; their life was difficult and exhausting and with limited contact with mainstream society. They did not want their children to have the same life; so they pressed them to receive education, earn qualifications and go into the professions, business and better jobs. Hazel Chu, the Mayor of Dublin (page 220), is a good example of this, thanks to her “tiger mother”. Later Chinese came from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and mainland Chinese to study in Irish universities. Those who decided to settle in Ireland after graduation have gone into IT, finance, property, trading, and the professions. They are wealthier and more integrated into society than the early arrivals. Since Ireland has historically been a country of emigrants, not immigrants, the Chinese, like other new arrivals, have faced less hostility than in many “old” countries of Europe.

With a priest at Croagh Patrick, Ireland's holy mountain, in 1977
With a priest at Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain, in 1977

How did you balance your personal experiences and anecdotes with historical and cultural context when writing this book?

My aim in writing the book was to balance personal narrative with history and culture. The publisher believes that a personal story makes a book more readable and understandable. He is right. A reader can identify more easily with a person than with facts and history. Try to write of events of which you have a personal knowledge or in which you took part.

Can you describe any interesting or unexpected discoveries you made during the process of writing this book?

The building of a replica of the Titanic in Sichuan province (page 176 and 177) was an unexpected discovery. The Titanic is a symbol of Belfast, whose people constructed it. It was one of the biggest and most luxurious passenger vessels ever built; tragically, it sank during its maiden voyage. Since then, the city has built a Titanic Museum, a very popular tourist destination: a Titanic Hotel: and a new Titanic quarter of modern offices and apartment blocks. The film by James Cameron inspired people around the world, including Su Shaojun, the man behind the replica. In the political environment of China today, I doubt that the replica will be completed and open to the public. Will Mr Su get a return on his investment?

With children in Faku, spring 1986; they had never seen a "big-nose" before
With children in Faku, spring 1986; they had never seen a “big-nose” before

What is your next project?

Graham Earnshaw has graciously accepted a similar book on Taiwan, with a personal narrative describing the extraordinary transformation of the island since I lived there in 1981-83. As with “Out of Ireland”, it is a pleasure to write. Also coming out this year, in the summer, is a biography of Zhou Yougang, the Father of Hanyu Pinyin, published by Joint Publishing of Hong Kong. The title is “The Man Who Made China a Literate Nation”. More than one billion Chinese have since 1958 used his Pinyin system to learn their language. It is the greatest linguistic achievement in human history. 

Last Updated on 2023/04/07

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