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A question of faith
by Jean Briesbois

I'm not proud of what I'm doing. But if people are prepared to pay to see my special talent, then I'll happily take their money...

Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

"Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink! Don't stop now; you can do it! Drink for your faith!"

Looking a little worse for wear, a beet-faced, visibly inebriated foreign male wearing an Irish football jersey, a red "Korea Team Fighting Scarf" and a green toque is draining the last drops from a green bottle of soju into his mouth. His wife, motivator and trainer, an attractive Korean woman dressed in a flowing hanbok, is beating on a traditional drum, urging him to continue drinking.

No, this isn't the opening scene from seedy, low budget DVD porn flick, but a training session for what Conor Talty, 35, an Irishman from Belfast, hopes will be the first soju drinking record to be entered into the pages of the Guiness Book of Records.

"Look at him, he's so brave," said Lee Kyung-sun, 25, Talty's wife of three years and number one fan. "I love drinking soju but Conor's got a great talent. Whiskey, rum, tequila ... you name it, he's so good at drinking it.

Taking a moment to steady himself before preparing to down his sixth bottle of soju, Talty believes that if his attempt is endorsed by Guinness World Records, he'll not only be carving out a place in history but will be helping to further the lofty ideals of his church.

"I'm going for 20 bottles," he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "I'm doing this for me future and the future of the church. People may think I'm a loon for trying to set a record, but this is a real way of proving my faith."

As a former English teacher who now heads up the Reunification Church -- a private organisation established by Talty after experiencing a vision while climbing Namsan in 2003 -- setting the world soju drinking record is not only about providing inspirational leadership for his flock, but raising money to continue the churches activities in Korea and abroad.

"I remember sitting on the mountain watching the sun rise, and felt so inspired by the earth, the seas, the planets and the greater universe," Talty explained in a thick Irish brogue. "The experience was so special that it changed my life forever."

Armed with his new found inspiration, and having read nearly a hundred titles on spirituality and self-help, Talty unleashed his new brand of religion on the unsuspecting Korean masses, a move that although well received by the people who worship with him, is not yet a paying proposition.

"At the moment, we're operating out of a van with an awning," he laughed. "We move around from place to place but it's time that we settled down. A church needs a solid foundation and that requires cash. Hopefully, by setting the soju drinking record we'll raise a lot of money, not to mention our profile."

Based on the simple principle of reunifying divided peoples such as Koreans and the Irish, Talty believes that his church is the way of the future and argues that the opportunity reunification should be undertaken at every level.

"For instance, I'm wearing a shirt from the republic but I'm from Northern Ireland," he said, tugging at his emerald green jersey. "If can take such a small step, then why can't we all try harder?"

A point that parishioner, Robert "Notorious BOB" Blaney supports. "I'm a proud third-generation Irish American and I love what Conor is trying to do. Reconciliation between countries, people and even the sexes is the way of the future, this truly is a unique religion."

With plans to stage his record attempt at Itaewon's Helios in the pipeline, Talty believes that even if Guinness refuses to readmit records for drinking or alcohol consumption into their record books, this is still the perfect way to reconcile the Irish and Korean communities in Itaewon.

"You know, I really shed a tear when I heard about the Irish lads being beaten like dogs by the folk at Helios. We [the Irish] have such a bad reputation in Korea and this did nothing to help," he said. "That's why I plan to have a chat with the owners [Helios] and see if they'll back me attempt. I can't think of a better way to reunify our communities."

But for Talty, setting a soju drinking record is more than just a way to raise money for his Reunification Church, it's about testing his faith in the face of the ultimate demon: alcoholism.

As a reformed alcoholic, Talty swore that he would never touch another drop, but strengthened by his faith and the love of his wife, he now believes that any hurdle can be overcome if you have faith.

"Things were pretty bad for me," he said. "I was unemployable because of me boozing and wound up sleeping under an overpass near Olympic Park. They were tough times and it was only through counseling that I managed to get back on me feet."

Renato Germinario, a qualified counselor who taught English in Korea for three and a half years believes that if it weren't for the hours of grueling sessions that he guided Talty through, the Irishman probably wouldn't be alive today.

"He was basically at the bottom of a downward spiral," Germinario said in an email interview from his home in Toronto. "Feelings of inadequacy had driven him, like so many English teachers in Korea, to heavy drinking. I genuinely fear for his mental and physical health if he goes through with this attempt," he added.

Yet for David Jonkers, a former English teacher who owns Loose Baby! (specialising in the production of reality-based TV programmes), the chance that Talty could fail and return to a life of alcoholism is an outcome that in terms of ratings, is "absolutely tantalising."

"We're looking for him [Talty] to fail," smirked Jonkers. "It's nothing personal but if we go ahead with our plans to film a reality-based show about ESL in Korea, then this is the stuff that will keep viewers glued to the screen."

And Talty, a Stakhanovite at heart, believes that while allowing his life to become little more than cheap entertainment for the masses is demeaning, it is a means to an end, and that is something he and his wife have never lost sight of.

"I'm not proud of what I'm doing. But if people are prepared to pay to see my special talent, then I'll happily take their money. This really is nothing more than a question of faith."

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October 6, 2004

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