Prais­ing the Ti­tanic

The ill-fated liner was launched a cen­tury ago from Belfast and the city is not in­clined to for­get

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - TOM ADAIR

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

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