Father Kevin O’Rourke was the first foreign national to earn a Ph.D. in Korean literature. (Photo: Agenzia Fides)
When Father Kevin Laurence O’Rourke first set foot on Korean soil in 1964, he found the East Asian nation full of insim (human heart). Back then, he was 24 years old.
By the time of his death on Oct. 23 in Seoul, the Irish missionary’s Korean linguistic proficiency made him a recipient of numerous literary awards, which came along with a Korean presidential citation and honorary citizenship of his adopted country.
According to his friends, it was difficult to make out that he was not, in fact, a native-born speaker and writer.
When Father O’Rourke breathed his last at the age of 81, the Missionary Society of St. Columban priest had become a trailblazer of Korean literary translation, a poet and a scholar in his own right.
He translated into English over 2,000 Korean literary works and was deeply immersed in missionary work which centered around the fields of culture, education, poetry and literature. Father O’Rourke’s translation works include both classical and contemporary Korean literature.
Father O’Rourke, the first foreign national to earn a Ph.D. in Korean literature from Yonsei University in 1982, has earned a special place in the history of the Korean Church.
From 1977 to 2005, he served as a teacher of English language and literature at Kyung Hee University.
During an interview with The Korea Times in 2014, he became nostalgic about Korea in the 1960s.
"Korea in the 1960s was full of insim. Back then, we used to tell a policeman on a one-way street that 'This is the only way I know to get home. Can you help me?' And he would stop the traffic and send you up."
Born in Cavan, Ireland, in 1939, Father O’Rourke served as an assistant priest at Soyangro Catholic Church in Chuncheon, Gangwon province, after his ordination in 1963. While serving there, he took an interest in Korean culture and literature.
Father O’Rourke translated Choi In-hun’s novel The Square, Lee Mun-yol’s novel Our Twisted Hero and So Chong-ju's poetry anthology Poems of a wanderer: selected poems of Midang So Chong-ju. In 2017, he bagged the well-known Daesan Literary Award for translation.
“I set out to put out the entire Korean poetry tradition in English,” Father O’Rourke said in an interview in 2009.
He edited and translated traditional Korean literature such as song, texts and poems from the Goryeo and Joseon eras.
Though words and lectures, he always displayed his appreciation for Korean culture and history, particularly for the mentality, character and wisdom of the Korean people.
He recounted how the Korean people put into practice the message of the Gospel in their culture through their tenacity.
His book, My Korea: 40 Years Without a Horsehair Hat, released in 2014, is part memoir and part miscellany on the traditional and contemporary Korean literature and culture through a series of essays, stories, poems and anecdotes.
Given his passion for Korean literature and poetry, this book delves deep into the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of Korean culture.
“You really had to see Korea in the sixties to know what it was like,” wrote Father O’Rourke in the opening of My Korea: 40 Years Without a Horsehair Hat.
“Korea time was the conceptual axis on which the culture turned. Modernization and the need for quick decisions has done away with this lovely, lazy, exasperating way of life.”
The Korean Church paid homage to the missionary scholar as his remains rest in Korea, his adopted homeland, in the house of the Missionary Society of St Columban in Seoul.