Over a century on, Belfast remains proud of its links to Titanic, as Suzanne McTaggart reports
THE people of Belfast have a popular saying about the Titanic: “She was built by the Irish – and sunk by the English”.
And nowhere in the world has the famous ship been more celebrated than Northern Ireland’s capital, where 15,000 men built the doomed liner at the shipyards of Harland and Wolff.
I was privileged enough to visit Belfast for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy last weekend, where a string of events were held to remember the 1,500 men, women and children who died when the ship sank after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic ocean.
The city’s pride in constructing the liner, which was the largest moving object in the world at the time and a miracle of technology, is impossible to avoid – making it a must-visit destination for all out-and-proud ‘Titanoraks’ like myself.
Titanic-related features include a memorial garden at Belfast City Hall, where the name of each victim is listed for the first time anywhere in the world; and a mural on the side of a house in east Belfast, where key figures including Marconi operator Jack Phillips are immortalised.
When I visited last weekend, a host of special events were also going on to mark the centenary, including Titanic: A Commemoration in Music and Film, which was screened live from Belfast’s Waterfront Centre on BBC2 – and I was lucky enough to be in the audience.
But probably the main reason to visit Belfast if you’re looking to soak up Titanic history is the brand new £97m Titanic Belfast, an ‘experience’ situated on the city’s waterfront – in the shadow of the shipyard where the liner was constructed with passion and skill.
The front of the building is modelled on the ship’s bow and standing next to it, you really get a feel for how the enormous, 175ft-high ship must have loomed over Belfast back in 1911 and 1912.
The interactive museum offers a good, solid overview of the tragedy, from how Belfast came to be a thriving hub of shipbuilding and the White Star Line’s links with Harland and Wolff, to the modern-day aspects of the disaster, including the discovery of the wreck back in 1985.
Features include a lifeboat like the ones that saved 705 survivors from the disaster on April 15, 1912, which happened as Titanic was on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.
A replica grand staircase, one of the most stunning features of Titanic’s first class facilities, has also been built – but unfortunately, it is in the function room, so cannot be accessed by everyday visitors.
There is also a couple of mistakes in the information which adorns the walls of the museum, but I won’t spoil it for any Titanoraks who fancy going to spot them for themselves.
Belfast’s Titanic landmarks do not end with Titanic Belfast and, after our visit to the museum ahead of opening time last Saturday, we toured Belfast Lough on the Mona, a small boat which can be hired for parties and river trips.
Titanic sailed down the Lough, which lies at the mouth of the River Lagan on Northern Ireland’s east coast, on her departure from her birth city to the port of Southampton on April 2, 1912.
The water offers a great view of several landmarks, including the bright yellow Harland and Wolff cranes – which tower over Belfast and could be seen from my room at the nearby Hilton Hotel – and the shipyard where Titanic was built.
We also sailed directly past the SS Nomadic, the only White Star Line vessel still in existence, which ferried first and second-class passengers out to Titanic when she stopped in Cherbourg.
The tender is currently being refurbished by Harland and Wolff as part of a project by the Nomadic Charitable Trust, which aims to restore the historic vessel to its former glory.
Following our trip on the Mona, we visited the Titanic Pump House and the Thompson Graving Dock – the dry dock built especially for Titanic’s fitting out after her launch on May 31, 1911.
Standing at the side of the cold and windy dock, it’s impossible not to marvel at how huge and spectacular Titanic must have been, especially to people at the beginning of the 20th century.
The photos from the wreck at the bottom of the North Atlantic don’t do justice to Titanic’s size; and I think Belfast is one of the only places where you can see how impressive the ship really was.
After a drive past some of Belfast’s other Titanic and non-Titanic features, including the mural, the garden at City Hall, Stormont and the peace walls of east Belfast, we prepared for Titanic: A Commemoration in Music and Film, starring famous names including Alfie Boe, Katie Melua, Bryan Ferry, Joss Stone and Mica Paris.
The live show was emotional to say the least, with music weaved into film footage telling the story of what happened on that fateful night.
Particularly haunting was the acclaimed violinists Nicola Benedetti and Charlie Siem playing Nearer, My God To Thee – reportedly the last hymn played by band leader and Dewsbury resident Wallace Hartley as the ship went down.
The following day, we put Titanic activities to one side and headed out of Belfast to soak up some of Northern Ireland’s stunning scenery.
The northern coast has some beautiful spots, including Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which isn’t one for the faint-hearted as it hangs 23 feet above the sea.
Bushmills Distillery, home of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, was founded more than 400 years ago and is open for tours and tasting, while Carrickfergus Castle is another picturesque spot.
Some would call Belfast’s fascination with Titanic an obsession but, along with Southampton and Nova Scotia, it is one of THE places to visit for anyone fascinated by the Titanic story.
And unlike Nova Scotia or Titanic’s destination city of New York, Belfast is actually a reasonably-priced short break, with Jet2.com’s flight from Leeds to Belfast International costing from just £18.99 per person.
Belfast bid goodbye to Titanic when she sailed down the Lough on April 2, 1912 – and two weeks later, the ship said goodbye to the world when she found her icy grave in the North Atlantic.
More than 100 years later, the tears still flow in Belfast – but now, they are tears of pride as the city makes sure the legend lives on for future generations.
Jet2.com flies to Belfast International from Leeds Bradford six times a week until October 26, with prices costing from £18.99 one way including taxes. To book, visit www.jet2.com.
Rooms at the Hilton Belfast cost from £84 per night per person. The hotel is a short walk from the city centre and offers great views of Belfast, with both international and Irish cuisine available at the Sonoma restaurant. To book, visit www.hilton.co.uk/belfast.
Jet2holidays.com is offering a three-night room only stay at the 3 star Days Belfast Hotel, departing from Leeds Bradford on August 1. Prices cost from £189 per person, based on two adults sharing. To book, visit www.jet2holidays.com or call 0800 408 5599.
Titanic Belfast is open seven days a week. Tickets cost £13.50 for adults and £6.75 for children aged five to 16. Under-fives go free. For more details, visit www.titanicbelfast.com.