It has inspired poets and songwriters, from the exiled monk who penned the ode to the blackbird over Loch Cuain in the seventh century to Van Morrison’s sailing Into the Mystic.
It is the setting off point for the emigrant and adventurer, the trader and the explorer.
For generations, “to take the boat” meant to set out on a new life in a strange land where, hopefully, greener pastures and gold-paved streets were plentiful.
Those ships sailed from the bustling port of Belfast and took sons and daughters of this great city on the first leg of journeys which reached to every corner of the globe.
And now they — and their progeny — are coming back.
The exiles and their offspring make up the spine of our tourist influx.
But increasingly they are also making their mark on every aspect of the city’s progress.
And the Belfast Homecoming is simply a means to marshall their efforts for the city where it all started.
But we wanted to pay homage to the legions who left by hosting a very special event during the second annual Belfast Homecoming right in the heart of the docks.
Thus was born our pop-up banquet on 8 October in the former Stena SeaCat terminal with its breathtaking views up Belfast Lough.
Of course, that will be only one element of a four-day extravaganza celebrating the city and its global family at the Belfast Homecoming which is open to the entire Irish and Scots-Irish Diaspora. After all, we may be an island of six or so million but we are a global family of 70 million.
And it will be my pleasure to raise a glass to the very best of that diaspora when I travel to New York later this week to for the Irish Labor 10, the biggest celebration of the Irish contribution to the trade union movement in the US. Among the very special guests at the Irish Labor 10 will be Robbie Hunter, a North Belfast man from strong union stock who is now President of the 600,000-member State Building and Construction Trades Council of California.
His people have been standing up for the rights of the working man and woman for a century and more — his great-grandfather John Quinn started the Belfast dockers’ strike of 1907.
It will be privilege to be in his company and the company of so many other champions of Irish America this Friday in New York — and the fact that the most radical Pope in many generations is saying mass ten blocks away should only add to the occasion.
Running Belfast for Nikki
I completed the Belfast half-marathon this morning (Sunday) for Nigerian refugee Francesca Dada who needs a financial leg-up to continue her studies in her adopted city.
Francesca, known to one and all as Nikki, has been a keen Open University student at the Falls Women’s Centre since 2012, acing a series of tough exams.
Three years on, she has successfully qualified for one of the prized places on the therapeutic counselling course at the Northern Regional College.
If she completes this course, Nikki would be qualified to work as a counsellor — a service in much demand across the community. Her stay in Belfast has not been short of adventure: her bid for refugee status under the EU Convention was granted last year but lost after an appeal by the British Home Office. In December, Nikki goes back before a judge to challenge that decision. At a time when we are readying our communities — and, if necessary, our homes — to meet the refugee crisis, it’s important not to lose sight of the lives of those who have come to our city seeking ayslum status and the very real challenges they face.
Nikki’s teachers at the Falls Women’s Centre, who have been great friends to her and her nine-year-old son Israel, estimate costs for the coming academic year to be £2,100 and are now seeking contributions towards that total.
Ten per cent of that total would be £210. I’m happy to match the first £105 chipped in for this good cause. Donations can be sent to me, made out to the Falls Women’s Centre, or sent directly to tutor Nancy Graham, Falls Women’s Centre, 256 Falls Road, Belfast BT12 6AL.
Interest in the Assembly Finance Committee’s NAMA Scandal inquiry will focus this week on the appearance of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and loyalist Jamie Bryson. At last week’s hearing, I raised questions around the £7.5m ‘success fee’ paid by vulture fund Cerberus and the role of the underbidder for the NAMA property portfolio Fortress. I have joined with SF colleagues and the UUP in arguing for maximum transparency for all witnesses with evidence to be given in public session.