Cruise liners visiting the deep-water port of Belfast – there were 54 last year - have always been able to dock pretty close to the city centre. As passengers disembark onto the Northern Ireland soil they are always pleased to be near the main shopping areas.
But these days, having just sailed past a recently constructed landmark structure that wonderfully symbolises the most famous ship the world has ever seen, they are doubly thrilled to be smack in the middle of town – ‘Titanic Town’. In fact, their ship is usually berthed just metres away from the slipway down which Belfast’s sons proudly sent RMS Titanic, the greatest cruise liner of them all, 100 years ago this year.
That gigantic slipway is just one of the tangible and historic reminders that no other place on Earth can claim a greater, longer or prouder association with the Titanic. For it was the sweat, toil and craftsmanship of Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyard, once the mightiest maritime force in the world, that conceived, designed, built and launched the most iconic ship in history.
The new landmark building however, on a par with Sydney’s Opera House, is a counterpoint to the past and will be the new must-see world centrepiece in relation to the Titanic. Named ‘TitanicBelfast’ the stunning £97 million piece of modern architecture stands very deliberately but majestically overlooking the very spot RMS Titanic first glided into the waters of Belfast Lough.
Crying on the streets
When work began on Titanic, in 1909, Belfast was one of the world’s greatest ports and Harland & Wolff were shipbuilders par excellence, lauded throughout the British Empire. Titanic was hailed as the last word in luxury and technological innovation, a magnificent summary of Edwardian elegance with five miles of decks, a gymnasium, squash courts and a swimming pool – unheard-of opulence for the time. She was the biggest moveable man-made structure on Earth, almost 900 feet long, 10 storeys tall. A bus could easily pass through each of her four funnels.
Grown men and hardened shipyard workers broke down and cried on the streets of Belfast the day the catastrophic news of her sinking and the loss of 1,500 lives came through. To the city that built her, the Titanic tragedy was a deep, profound and numbing shock; for the rest of the world it was a turning point in maritime safety and a terrible confidence-shaking reminder of the fallibility of modern technology.
Everybody knows Belfast has been slow to tell her Titanic tale. The immensity of the Titanic story led places around the world to build attractions, some with strong connections to her and some with none; Belfast couldn’t face it.
“It was understandable,” says self-confessed ‘Titanorak’ Colin Cobb, who runs Titanic Walking Tours in Belfast. “She was three years in the making. She dominated the city skyline. She sailed out of her native port with a hell of a lot of pride behind her.”
Yet in less than two weeks, on her maiden voyage, an iceberg sent the pride of Belfast to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
It took the most of the century that has since passed for Northern Ireland’s capital, including the relatives of the 22 Belfast people who perished on Titanic, and the thousands who worked on her, to come to terms with what fate or just sheer bad luck had dealt the famed luxury liner.
But so much has changed in Titanic Town. The passage of time has allowed the original pride in the engineering achievements that built the iconic ship to return to the fore. Over the past few years, the city has finally, and rightfully, acknowledged its part in the tale of the Titanic.
A few years ago the city council instigated an annual ‘Titanic: Made in Belfast’ festival (every April) celebrating the ship, the stories of the people who built her, and her home town, and this has both tapped into and coincided with the wave of optimism of the post-Troubles ‘new Belfast’.
There has been a massive upsurge in creative energy and investment in the city, much of it directed towards celebrating the glories of Titanic on a world-class level in time for her centenary in 2012. Tours, exhibitions, museums, products, murals, ‘experiences’ and books of all descriptions have sprung up. Membership of the Belfast Titanic Society has surged. And, according to Colin Cobb, “Titanic memorabilia has gone stratospheric”.
Titanic Walking Tour
Cobb works seven days a week bringing Belfast’s Titanic story to life for visitors. “We provide access to all of the areas and buildings important to the ‘ship of dreams’ story – the Harland & Wolff Drawing Offices, the slipways, Titanic’s Dock & Pump-House,” he says.
And as you walk with him you witness first-hand the shipyard geography and the context of the many new Titanic-related developments in Belfast. It starts at the Premier Inn hotel in Titanic Quarter – a high-end waterfront development that will eventually cover most of the vicinity of the old shipyard – and the first stop is actually the impressive ‘TitanicBelfast’.
This star-shaped architecture resembles the hull of a massive ship and it’s going to be the world’s biggest and most important Titanic visitor attraction. Inside you will find dramatic and interactive visitor exhibitions uncovering the stories of Belfast and the Titanic – its origins, construction, launch and famous history.
It will be ready for 2012, when half a million people are expected to visit as worldwide interest in the shipping phenomenon, which will he helped by the re-release of the James Cameron multi-Oscar-winning Titanic film in 3D, reaches fever pitch.
The tour takes in SS Nomadic, the tender ship that ferried 142 first-class passengers to Titanic in 1912. The last remaining White Star Line (Titanic’s owners) ship in existence today, it was built to the same standards as Titanic in Harland & Wolff and has been recently brought home to be restored.
The last stop on the Titanic Walking Tour is inside the Pump-House – an Edwardian engineering masterwork – and the massive dock where the shipyard workers fitted out the liner. It concludes with a film explaining its workings. Lunch, coffee and excellent Titanic souvenirs are all on offer in the Pump-House Café.
Poignant Titanic experiences
To experience what Titanic sights cruise ship passengers see on their way in to Belfast harbour, the Titanic Boat Tour is the way to go. You can also take cab and open top city bus tours that take in the key Titanic sites, the shipyard and Titanic Quarter. Titanic wall murals in the now famous Belfast tradition are a short walk from the city centre and great photo opportunities.
Another operator offers a luxurious leather-seated Mercedes to take you round some of the most evocative Titanic sites. Former local TV journalist Susie Millar’s great grandfather Tommy Millar worked on, travelled on and perished with the ship. Her unique connection with Titanic makes her tour particularly poignant.
Belfast and 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.
For 2011 the city is extending the annual Titanic festival over a two-month period, as 31 May is the centenary of the launch of the ship from Belfast’s slipways. Running from 31 March, it culminates on 31 May, the 100th anniversary of the ship’s launch.
The ‘Titanic 100’ festival will feature a variety of special events, including an exhibition (31 March-30 April) focusing on the fantastic work of the great Irish photographer RJ Welch, Harland & Wolff’s official photographer during the Titanic era.
There’s also a huge variety of Titanic-related activities each weekend and over the Easter holiday period (23-26 April). Free bus tours of Titanic Quarter, free walking tours departing from Belfast City Hall’s Titanic Memorial, artefact displays in the City Hall itself and a series of talks, plays, debates and films are among the many events and activities taking place.
‘Titanic 100’ will culminate in a unique ceremony on the Titanic slipway commemorating the ship’s magnificent launch on 31 May 1911.
And that date is also the start of a brilliant TITANICa exhibition opening at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, where you can step back in time and watch Titanic movies in a silent cinema or dress up in period costume as you get your picture taken in the surroundings of the ship.
Belfast also promises ‘great things’ in the home of RMS Titanic for the centenary of her maiden voyage in April 2012.