Belfast Telegraph

How trip on this ship revealed just what others think of people in NI

By Alf McCreary

Many people are now back from their summer holidays and the memories remain to be savoured throughout our long autumn and winter.

Some of my memories this year are of several short cruises on the giant US liner the Caribbean Princess as she sailed into Belfast from Dublin or Liverpool as part of her summer tours of the British Isles. It was my privilege to give a series of lectures on board, concerning the history of Belfast Harbour and the Titanic, about which I wrote the book 'Titanic Port' several years ago.

There was a certain irony about an Ulster author talking about the Titanic to a multi-national audience on a cruise liner, but they all showed a deep interest in Belfast Harbour into which they were sailing the next morning.

Inevitably I talked to quite a number of people on each short cruise, and it provided an insight into what visitors think of Northern Ireland before they come here.

One man from Toronto was certain that our troubles were "between Protestants and Catholics," which is a common misconception about our province. Clearly we have not shaken off the old labels of a nation of religious bigots.

So my fellow traveller on the Caribbean Princess likened our divisions to those of the fierce quarrels between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, except that ours are within a Christian context.

He was a reasonable and intelligent man, but I had difficulty in trying to convince him that our divisions here are not due to theological differences, as such, and that the terms 'Protestant' and 'Catholic' are used as labels for much deeper divisions involving economics, territory and political power. I am still not sure that he took my point.

On another voyage, I had a long conversation with a young crew member from Indonesia who was a devout Catholic and he had a great respect for St Patrick.

He wanted to know more about our patron saint and asked me the best places to visit during his time in Northern Ireland.

I suggested that he should try to visit the St Patrick's Heritage Centre in Downpatrick or the two great St Patrick Cathedrals and the Heritage Centre in Armagh.

One of my vivid memories of this year's cruises is that of attending an ecumenical service on the Caribbean Princess as she glided into Belfast Lough on a Sunday morning. The service was simple and yet profound and a reminder of the very many people from all denominations who take their Christian faith with them when they go on holiday.

There was a surprising number of people who had been on a previous cruise around the British Isles and on one journey I met a couple on board who live in Holywood.

At the end of one lecture I talked to a man who told me he came from Sailortown in the docks area, but had emigrated to Toronto some 60 years earlier.

At breakfast one morning I met a lady whose home is in the desert near Las Vegas and who loved our "Irish rain".

It was also fascinating to discover which day trips the visitors were taking. Very many chose the Giant's Causeway, the Titanic Heritage Centre or a city tour of Belfast, and one couple from Philadelphia were keen to see Londonderry's Walls because of their historic structural significance.

Overall my cruises into Belfast on the Caribbean Princess made me proud of what we have to offer international tourists, and a deep gratefulness that such visits are possible after all we have been through.

Inevitably many conversations with Americans ended up with speculation about Donald Trump, and most were very apprehensive that he might be elected US President.

However, one couple from Maryland told me that they were Christians and they believed deeply that whatever happens, God will still be in ultimate control.

It's amazing what you learn when you are part of a group of 4,000 people in a cruise liner crossing the Irish Sea.

Belfast Telegraph


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