An Atlantic crossing — but first, a confession

On this date in 1941, Graham Greene, en route to West Africa, wrote:

Into Belfast. Little white lighthouses on stilts; a buoy that seems to have a table tied to it; a sunken ship right up in the dock. Cranes like skeleton foliage in a steely winter. The flicker of green flame in the bellies of building ships. Hundreds of dockyard workers stop altogether to see one small ship come in.

  Endless impatient waiting for the immigration officer to come on board. Why the anxiety to get ashore in so dull a place? It is the cruise-spirit perhaps. I thought it just as well to go to the Confession before the Atlantic. This hideous Catholic Church difficult to find in Protestant Belfast. At the Presbytery a tousled housekeeper tried to send me away when I asked for a confession. ‘This is no time for confession,’ trying to shut the door in my face. The dreadful parlour hung with pious pictures as unlived-in as a dentist’s waiting-room, and then the quiet, nice young priest who called me ‘son’ and whose understanding was of the simplest. In the same street the pious repository selling Woodbines from under the counter to old women.

  In the evening a dozen and a half Galway oysters and a pint and a half of draught Guinness at the Globe. Then back to the ship.

  • From Convoy to West Africa by Graham Greene (1941). This passage is anthologised in A Traveller’s Year: 365 Days of Travel Writing in Diaries, Journals and Letters, compiled by Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison (Frances Lincoln).
  • The writer Nicholas Shakespeare, at the end of a talk at a Graham Greene Festival in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, in 2013, reported a different version of what happened when Greene met the priest. That account was passed on to him by John Leahy, a diplomat who in the mid-1970s served as Under-Secretary of State in Northern Ireland. Leahy was sent to meet Greene after the writer asked if there was anything he could do to help end the Troubles.

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