For the millions of RMS Titanic lovers around the world 15 April 2012 is a hugely significant date.
On that day it will be exactly 100 years since the tragic sinking of the ship that changed so many lives and sparked one of the most captivating stories in human history.
Some of the world’s richest first-class passengers were on board, as were the humblest of third-class Irish emigrants embarking on a new life in the new world.
From the moment they were lost, on the ship’s maiden voyage, the most famous sea-going vessel ever built has generated myth, legend and real-life heart-rending tales of thwarted Edwardian dreams, doomed love, adventure and survival, impotent wealth and power, cowardice and heroism.
It’s a story, or a collection of stories, of universal interest and proportions.
They will be much revisited, commemorated and celebrated around the globe throughout 2012 and beyond.
Such tales are well known in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the 15 April date reverberates there more loudly than anywhere else in the world.
For Belfast built the Titanic, launched her, slowly came to terms with her loss and is now installed at the forefront of the worldwide celebrations of her historic anniversary.
A century on, the once trouble-torn Belfast is magnificently resurgent and finally taking centre stage to tell her own fascinating story of the most iconic ship on the planet.
On 31 March, the world’s largest Titanic visitor attraction – Titanic Belfast – will officially open its doors, thrusting the ship’s physical and spiritual home firmly into the global spotlight.
Titanic Belfast is a potent symbol of the new, revived and buzzing Belfast and the crowning glory in the melange of international attractions devoted to the ship of dreams.
The striking £97 million piece of modern architecture stands majestically at the head of the very slipways where the Titanic first glided into the waters of Belfast Lough.
Inside, nine walk- and ride-through exhibition galleries equipped with the latest 3D CGI and video technology uncover the true Belfast story of the Titanic – from her conception and build in the Harland & Wolff Shipyard to her famous maiden voyage and subsequent place in history.
A host of experiences are on offer – a thrilling ride through the shipyard with the Titanic under construction, or an exploration of the sumptuous luxury and superb craftsmanship of her interiors.
You can be drawn deep into the stories of the passengers, crew and the heroes of the day or re-live the drama of her tragic end and visit her resting place in the North Atlantic – in a unique Ocean Exploration Centre with live links to contemporary undersea exploration.
Breathtaking views over the slipways where the Titanic was launched can be enjoyed, as can relaxation in one of the superb restaurants.
Up to 450,000 people are expected to flock to the attraction in its first year, with thousands of overseas tickets already booked and international demand high.
The centenary of the ship and the opening of Titanic Belfast, coupled with a historic past and a music and literary inspired present, means Belfast is being listed as a happening and must-see destination by the world’s top travel publications.
The whole city is pulling together with pride, ready to welcome the world.
And there is much to share.
The liner’s mighty footprint is still very much in evidence in Titanic Town – the slipways, the re-developed shipyard, the Titanic Quarter, the original Titanic Pumphouse and Thompson Dry Dock where craftsmen fitted her out, the Drawing Offices where she was designed and the SS Nomadic which is docked in Queens Quay (the last White Star Line ship in the world and the vessel that ferried first-class passengers to her) – are all there to see, feel and touch.
Visitors have a massive array of Titanic tours, attractions, exhibitions, events and experiences worthy of the great ship herself to choose from throughout her centenary year.
But from 31 March to 22 April especially, the city will be alive with a special Titanic Belfast Festival.
Titanic Belfast Festival
The festival will include a visionary Titanic Light Show (7–11 April) that will showcase Titanic Belfast over the Easter holiday weekend.
MTV, which staged the European Music Awards in the city last November, will return with not one, but two spectacular outdoor music events on the Titanic Slipways (12–13 April).
On 14 April 2012, the 100th anniversary of the night Titanic struck the iceberg, the Waterfront Hall will host Titanic: A Centenary Commemoration which will showcase the city’s Titanic story. A fitting memorial to those who lost their lives, this will be a spectacle of words, music and memories, a chance to commemorate the fate of Titanic as well as celebrate an amazing industrial achievement and honour the thousands of ordinary Harland and Wolff shipyard workers who built an extraordinary ship.
The gala evening will be narrated by a breathtaking range of the UK’s most well-known cultural icons and celebrities.
On the same night American oceanographer Dr Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, will present previously unseen material from the liner when he addresses the audience in Titanic Belfast.
In the nearby St Anne’s Cathedral, meanwhile, a specially written requiem will take place, followed by a torchlight procession to a new Titanic Memorial Garden at Belfast’s City Hall.
The next night (15 April) a requiem mass will be held in St Peter’s Cathedral and there will be a commemorative event at Belfast City Hall.
Relatives of those who lost their lives on Titanic will join this service to honour all who went down with the ship.
22 April will see the launch of a new and specially-commissioned play by Northern Ireland’s premier playwright Owen McCafferty will run at the vibrant and newly opened MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) in the city’s Titanic Quarter.
Described as an emotive courtroom drama full of intrigue, bravery and human frailty, Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912) is guaranteed to be a sell-out. The play will run until the 20th of May.
Elsewhere, Belfast Operatic Company returns to the Grand Opera House with the Tony-award-winning Titanic: the Musical (10–14 April).
With a beautiful score, this is a powerful and dramatic theatre experience faithfully retelling the story of characters on the liner’s maiden voyage.
April is the high point, but there are many more Titanic events taking place throughout 2012, including the Titanic Proms in September and a new play by Belfast playwright Martin Lynch which will run in the Grand Opera House in August.
The worldwide thirst for Titanic information, experiences and stories is voracious, but in her home town there is plenty to satisfy and entertain the most serious ‘Titanorak’ or the just plain curious at any time.
The Titanic wall murals – superb photo opportunities in the now famous Belfast tradition – are but a short walk from the city centre.
The Titanic Walking Tour runs seven days a week bringing Belfast’s Titanic story to life and providing access to all of the areas and buildings important to the story.
Titanic Boat Tours provide a riverside view of Titanic Belfast, the slipways and more, and you can also take black cab or open top city bus tour that takes in the key Titanic sites, the shipyard and Titanic Quarter.
Belfast’s surrounding towns also offer various Titanic memorials and tours of the former homes of Harland and Wolff supremo Lord Pirrie and the ship’s designer Thomas Andrews.
There are also Titanic exhibitions running in various locations in the city, including TITANICa at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum featuring never before seen artefacts from the ship.
You can discover Titanic and her world at this exciting exhibition and learn how and why the Titanic and her sister ships were built in Belfast.
Titanic talks, debates and family events are ongoing at any time and you can even drink Titanic Quarter beer and eat a lavish nine-course Titanic menu – Rayanne House, an award winning guest house, recreates the menu served in the first class restaurant on the iconic ship.
Another operator, Titanic Tours Belfast, offers a luxurious VIP Mercedes to take you round some of the most evocative Titanic sites.
It’s run by former TV journalist Susie Millar, whose great grandfather Tommy Millar worked on, travelled on and perished with the Titanic.
Before he left Belfast, Susie’s great grandfather gave both of his two sons a new penny, telling them ¨Don´t spend those until I see you again.¨
Of course, he never returned.
The younger son kept the two pennies all his life, passing them on to his own son, who in turn gave them to his daughter, Susie.
Just one of so many poignant stories surrounding the ship of dreams.
Today the re-claiming of Belfast’s Titanic heritage ranks among them.
Something very big has taken shape in Belfast, and really wasn’t that the very case just over 100 years ago?