19 July 2009

From Dublin to Beijing, after 30 years

On a visit to Beijing five years ago

Patrick Comerford

Thirty years ago, I was travelling to Japan to take up a fellowship that would allow me to study politics and economics and travel throughout Japan. This was the first fellowship of its kind awarded by Journalistes en Europe and Nihon Shimbun Kyokai, and was facilitated through a generous sabbatical from The Irish Times.

Although I was 27 and a world-wise journalist, until then I had never been further west than Achill Island or further east than Greenwich. We have all become so used to long-haul flights at this stage, it is hard to imagine now what a mammoth trek the journey from Dublin to Tokyo was in those days … and it took days.

Pakistan International Airways offered the cheapest – but probably the longest – route from London, through Damascus in Syria, Dharhan in eastern Saudi Arabia, Karachi in Pakistan and Beijing in China.

It was a sad surprise to be told that I could get off the plane at Beijing. For two hours, I was left on the plane as it refuelled and was cleaned. The cleaners were kind and smiling, but spoke no English. The lone, young policeman who was deputed to watch over me and make sure I made no attempt to get off the plane had some English and was friendly and polite.

He explained that there were no diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Ireland. And all I wanted to do was a little bit of harmless, duty-free souvenir shopping. But my passport was meaningless, in the eyes of Chinese officials. I had to stay on board, with the air conditioning off and no-one to provide me with anything to drink.

After a full-term in Japan, I was returning to Ireland at the end of the summer. Once again, there was another marathon journey ahead of, through Beijing, Islamabad and Rawalpindi, Istanbul, Amsterdam and London. I was off to see more of the big, wide world.

But on the return journey, the atmosphere at Beijing Airport had changed dramatically. Yes, of course I could get off, of course I could go shopping, of course I could take photographs. During my sojourn in Japan, Dessie O’Malley had visited Beijing, and full diplomatic relations between Ireland and China had been ratified.

I have since been back to China and the Far East, on many occasions in the last thirty years, as a journalist, as a peace campaigner, and while I was involved in the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission. In China, I have been to Beijing, Shanghai, Pudong, Hong Kong, Hangzhou, Guiyang, Anshun and in many small towns and villages throughout Guizhou Province.

Everywhere, the Churches have been warmly welcome, and it was a particular pleasure a few years ago to be with the Irish community in Shanghai on Saint Patrick’s Day. Internal politics in China and the lack of diplomatic relations between Dublin and Beijing would have rendered this unimaginable thirty years ago.

Earlier this month, New Island, in collaboration with RTÉ, has published a new book, China and the Irish, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Ireland.

This is a pioneering work and the first to explore relations between the Chinese people and the people of Ireland. The book includes eleven essays on an astonishing range of topics, from diplomatic history to music, from business to botanical exchanges and literary connections.

Nine of the essays were first broadcast from June to August last year as part of the Thomas David lecture Series in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics. In addition, the book has a welcoming letter from President Mary McAleese and an afterword by the current Irish Ambassador to China, Declan Kelleher.

This book makes it clear that although formal diplomatic relations go back only thirty years, the people of China and Ireland have a long and complex relationship going back over the centuries.

The editor of China and the Irish, Dr Jerusha McCormack, taught in UCD for thirty years, and for the past five years has been Visiting professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The other contributors are Dr Shane McCausland of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Dr Richard O’Leary of Queen’s University Belfast, Fintan O’Toole and Ruadhán Mac Cormaic of The Irish Times, Brendan Parson (the Earl of Rosse), who worked for almost twenty years with UN agencies, Dr Hwee-San Tan of Goldsmiths College London and the University of Surrey, Richard Barrett and Pauline Byrne of Treasury Holdings, and myself.

In our shared chapter – “Heroism and Zeal: Pioneers of the Irish Christian Missions to China” (pp 73-87) – Richard O’Leary and I look at the story of Irish missionaries who have been working in China since the 1840s, particularly those who worked there with the support of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, the Church Mission Society and the Maynooth Mission to China (the Columban fathers and sisters).

There were others too, including Vincentians and Christian Brothers, Methodists like Dr George Hadden from Wexford, his wife Helen, and the Revd Desmond Gilliland, and Presbyterians such as the Revd Dr Jack Weir.

This is a beautifully printed and illustrated volume and it’s been a real pleasure to be involved in this publication.

Jerusha McCormack (ed), China and the Irish (Dublin: New Island, ISBN: 9781848400429; hardback, 160 pp, €29.99).

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