Praising the Titanic
The ill-fated liner was launched a century ago from Belfast and the city is not inclined to forget
THE weather is moody. Shafts of sunlight pierce the sky between bruises of cloud, casting a gloom over Belfast Lough. It’s as though the city is undecided about its remembrance of the launching of the RMS Titanic from these waters 100 years ago. Should it be a commemoration or a celebration?
I cross the lawns of the grandiose City Hall to the Titanic 100 photography exhibition. Here photographs in black and white rise imposingly on freestanding hoardings in the shadow of the City Hall’s mock-grand facade.
They possess a grandeur of their own; for there it is in a state of undress. The imposing hulk of the Titanic takes shape through these photographs: the world’s largest liner, scaffolding rising as it climbs towards the rain-smudged sky.
Some lunchtime office workers arrive and stare up at the images. ‘ ‘ She’s got no funnels,’’ says an American as he takes a snap. The workers who made the Titanic are depicted balancing like acrobats on the propeller shaft. About 3000 men, most of whom are invisible inside its belly, laboured earnestly all those years ago; others visible in silhouette stare towards Belfast, a city famous for making linen, rope and great ships in what was then the largest shipyard in the world, at Harland and Wolff.
Belfast grew up in the frantic boom times of 19th-century expansion. By 1911, it ruled the waves. White Star liner the RMSOlympic ( the Titanic’s sister ship) had completed its maiden voyage. When the Titanic was launched on May 31, 1911, as the vaunted palace of White Star’s dreams, it was proclaimed unsinkable.
‘‘Sure, if only they had known,’’ says a man beside me, observing the image of the workers pouring through the shipyard gates, with the ghostly leviathan in the background, an ocean awaiting.
Nowadays Belfast’s unique selling point, in the shorthand of tourism hype, remains the Troubles, the city’s conflagration over three decades at the end of the 20th century. Visitors scurry to the Falls and Shankill roads to photograph murals depicting seminal moments in the conflict. However, the city is rich in competing attractions.
The reborn Ulster Museum, with displays on natural and local history, has won awards for its imaginative makeover. There are self-guided trails around the city’s university and cathedral quarters, pub tours, ghost tours, and literary trails (C.S. Lewis was born here).
There are so many annual festivals — St Patrick’s Carnival, Feile an Phobail (the largest community festival in Ireland), a film festival, music festivals, a festival of dance and two arts festivals — that you begin to think the city should be twinned with Salzburg, Rio or Cannes instead of Wonju in South Korea.
The annual Titanic Festival began in 2001, when it was kept low key and brief. However, for this centenary year the scale of the events has been vastly increased. Aseries of overlapping talks, tours, films and artefact displays and exhibitions have kept so-called Titanoraks engrossed and the general tourist spoilt for choice. Bus tours of the shipyard at Queen’s Island, a tour of the SS Nomadic (which ferried the first and second-class passengers from the dockside to board the great ship) and a tour of Titanic’s key sites with the great-grand- daughter of a Titanic engineer have all been on offer.
A living history tour with actors transports you to 1911 to meet those who had a hand in the liner’s construction. I take the landlubbers’ option, a two-hour Titanic Walking Tour, guided by Bethany, who steers our group of five (two Dutch, two Canadians and myself) along the riverside to a 15m sculpture of the Titanic.
She has to yell into the teeth of the wind about the history of the shipyard, displaying a sheaf of more black-and-white pictures (while painting more colourful ones with her words) as she recreates the scene of the Titanic’s construction, launch and ill-fated departure from the port.
We visit the drawing office, dilapidated now but still oozing grandeur, and look through great windows on to the slipways where the prow of the Titanic once rose majestically. The four-prowed visitor centre — due to open next year for the centenary of the sinking, which happened on April 15, 1912 — rises nearby and is strangely reminiscent (dare I say it?) of an iceberg.
Outside, on the slipways, we picture its ghost, and that of the Olympic, built alongside, oohing and aahing at Bethany’s pictures of the opulent interiors: the swimming pool, the gymnasium.
‘‘It shocks you into imagining,’’ says Benny from Doetinchem. ‘ ‘ This walk, it makes you see.’’
The next day, I see more aboard the SS Mona, on the ‘‘world’s only Titanic boat tour’’, inhaling the atmospheric diesel-whiff of Mona’s engine as we sail from Donegall Quay, down the still windy Lagan to Abercorn Basin and Clarendon Dock, to a place no other Titanic tour can fathom: the watery reaches of the slipway from which the Titanic glided towards its fate.
‘‘On the day she launched,’’ says Alan, our guide, ‘‘if we’d been in
Carl Grant raises his hat as people gather at Belfast Lough, Northern Ireland, on May 31, 2011, at the exact spot where the Titanic was launched 100 years ago
The ship sails out of Southampton on its doomed maiden voyage
The launch of the Titanic at Belfast, where it was built