It’s 100 years ago. The Manhattan Bridge has just connected Canal Street to Brooklyn, Henry Ford has already sold 10,000 cars and the young aviation industry has yet to ‘take off’.
In Belfast, the noise of the hammering of rivets echoes around the city from the Harland & Wolff shipyard. There, a local workforce of 15,000 men is constructing the mighty RMS Titanic and sister ship RMS Olympic; the looming ships visible from almost anywhere in the city.
And so began, rivet-by-rivet, the tragic story of the most famous ship in the world, right in the bustling port of Belfast. 100 years later, this story still inspires festivals, city tours, societies, oh and a little Oscar-winning movie you may have heard of.
Operator of Titanic Tours Belfast Susie Millar tries to pin down what it is about this story, Leonardo diCaprio aside, that remains so compelling:
“If you tried to compose a work of fiction that had the world’s largest ship, full of some of the world’s richest people, colliding with an iceberg on its maiden voyage and losing two-thirds of its passengers and crew, no-one would believe it. Titanic is now one of the best-known global “brands” and it all started here in Belfast, so there is a wealth of information to share with visitors.”
The appeal of the Titanic story is massive, quite literally: when she was launched in 1912, she was the largest man-made object ever moved. The radio, electric lighting and sumptuous, first-class interiors made her very modern too. Not that this came cheap – Titanic cost £1.5 million to build, the equivalent of around £300 million (C$500 million) today. She even had up-to-date safety features like automatic watertight doors, a double hull on the bottom and a clever fire detection system. That fatal collision with the iceberg was a blow that no other ship of the time could have survived either.
The pride felt by Belfast in the quality of the ship’s construction is still felt today, a century on. Susie explains:
“When the Olympic and Titanic were being constructed, there was a definite sense of pride. But when the Titanic disaster happened, Belfast clammed up and it was hardly spoken about. The slipway where Titanic was built was used as a car park in the ’70s and ’80s – that’s a good indication of the level of interest there was in Titanic back then. It has taken all this passage of time for the city to come back to that pride again. We are now at a place where we can celebrate the engineering and innovative achievement of Titanic while remembering those who were lost.”
Like many people of Belfast today, Susie has an ancestor, her great grandfather Tomas Millar, who worked on the Titanic. He was also lost with the ship when it sank, and she is part of half a dozen families who gather at the Titanic Memorial in Belfast’s City Hall every April 15.
The city has lots of other ways of remembering Titanic and its shipbuilding heritage. The Nomadic, which ferried passengers from Cherbourg onto the off-shore Titanic, and is the last remaining ship of the White Star Line, was brought back to Belfast by the Nomadic Preservation Society where it is now being restored. The Belfast Titanic Society hosts regular meetings, lectures and publishes in its magazine first-hand accounts from people who saw the liner. The Titanic Made in Belfast Festival takes place every April, celebrating the ship and her city with special tours, talks and exhibitions. A huge development of the former shipyard called the Titanic Quarter, with apartments, hotels, restaurants, parklands and a state-of-the-art Titanic museum will be completed by 2012.
So like the people of Belfast 100 years ago, who could see the Olympic and Titanic grow larger on the slipways from their doorstep, today’s residents will now watch development rise from the waterfront once again, smug in the notion that ‘ah sure that’s just Belfast, always building something’.
You can hear more stories about the great ship and connect with other fans on our Titanic Stories Facebook page.
Find out more about visiting Northern Ireland yourself, where you can take the Titanic Trail, a self-guided walking tour showing the history of shipbuilding and the Titanic in Belfast, or let expert guide Susie take you on her one of her Titanic Tours Belfast
Check out the brilliant official website from the real home of the Titanic – Belfast in Northern Ireland.