‘I think we were the first Koreans in Roscommon!’

Hwang family marks nine years in Ireland

Juwon Hwang, Dongae Kwon, Jin Hwang (13), Beane Hwang (12) and Chan Hwang (6) pictured at a recent Coman’s Swimming Club event.

South Korean husband and wife, Juwon Hwang (48) and Dongae Kwon (45) have been living in County Roscommon since 2016, having come here to work as ministers with Rahara-based Operation Mobilisation (OM), a Christian Missionary organisation which was founded in 1957.

The couple are among 7,000 OM employees worldwide and have previously lived in Shanghai and the UK. Their two eldest children Jin (13) and Beane (12) were born in Korea while their youngest son Chan (6) was born here in Ireland.

Juwon, who is also an associate pastor with the River of Life Church in Athlone, is from the bustling South Korean capital of Seoul, while Dongae hails from the historic Jeolla province in the southwest of the country. The couple met while working in the UK.

Their son Jin and daughter Beane are now members of Coman’s Swimming Club, where Juwon is a coach. Jin, who attends Roscommon Community College, recently qualified for the Connacht interprovincial team. Beane is a Rahara National School student while Chan attends St Coman’s Wood.

Juwon started coaching with Coman’s two years ago and says it is a great way to get to know other people in the community.

“I think we are the first Koreans in Roscommon,” Juwon says. “We have spoken to many people in Roscommon and they have very little information about Korea.

“Some don’t even know the difference between North Korea and South Korea,” his wife Dongae adds.

“Here, most people are Catholic and being members of the Catholic Church is a big part of their identity. We are absolute ‘blow-ins’, but I think people also regard us with some suspicion, particularly in the countryside. It took four or five years of people getting to know us and why we are here,” Juwon laughs.

As for their missionary work, Juwon says it is “a calling from God” and they enjoy spreading the Gospel while serving both the church and other people.

Juwon and Dongae do miss certain aspects of their lives back home, including their parents, the warm Korean summers and almost year-round sunshine…and of course the food!

They say the long, dark Irish winters have been tough compared to the “four seasons” South Koreans are used to.

“I’ve never felt any depression or anything like that but last winter we really struggled,” Juwon said. “We have learned to hibernate!”

Dongae says before coming to Ireland she never understood how people’s moods could be affected by the weather.

“We didn’t understand how people could be depressed because of it…but now we see. During winter you spend a lot of time at home and it is dark and cold and wet. In Korea we have much more sunshine,” she said.

Weather aside, the family have adapted well to Roscommon life and the couple say they have “made a breakthrough” in recent years due to Juwon’s swimming coaching and Dongae’s love of music.

“I became involved as a coach with Coman’s Swimming Club and since 2021 we have hosted a music evening at our house. We invite our neighbours here in Abbeyville and members of our church,” Juwon said.

Dongae adds: “We thought about how we could engage with our neighbours. We had to be more proactive so we opened our house and garden and invited neighbours and friends and had a music evening.

“It has happened for the last two years so now people understand who we are and it enabled us to build up more trust. They see that we are a family from Korea…and there’s nothing suspicious in the house,” she jokes.

Now very much at home in Roscommon town, the couple say they are looking forward to continuing to build on their friendships with neighbours and other members of the local community as well as enjoying some long overdue sunshine and music as the evenings get longer and brighter this spring.