April 14, 1912: The moonless North Atlantic night was calm – until RMS Titanic’s hull collided with an iceberg at 11:40 p.m.
Approximately two and a half hours later the elegant, celebrated White Star liner vanished below the surface. Over 1,500 men, women, and children died.
Cunard’s RMS Carpathia rescued the survivors.
The grim job of searching for bodies fell to Canadian east coast ships and mariners.
Three Halifax cemeteries became the final resting place for the majority of those recovered.
Like you, I knew the story, but felt my first visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland, would be incomplete without exploring the former home of the Harland and Wolff shipyards, now revitalized as the Titanic Quarter.
A brisk 30-minute walk from the Fitzwilliam, my city centre hotel, past St. George’s Artisan Food Market built in the late 1800s, brings me to the River Lagan. The six-story, 130,000 square-foot angular Titanic Experience resembles ships’ hulls, or, according to locals, an iceberg. Either way, you can’t miss it.
[A hologram depicts the tragedy – Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo]
Armed with a headset, I spend the morning roaming the nine galleries. I am intrigued by outstanding black and white photography depicting early 1900s life in booming shipbuilding Belfast.
Gradually euphoric optimism and pride turns to shock as history unfolds.
Dot-dot dash dash dot dot….SOS. Sounds of distress gradually filter through the air. Poignant letters, recovered belongings, newspaper clippings, taped recordings, interviews replace the joy and optimism of the initial Belfast launch and maiden voyage departure from Liverpool en route to New York.
Overcoming my slight phobia of cavernous spaces I opt for the electronic Shipyard Ride. Gliding around massive pillars, and down slipway #3 designed to facilitate construction of towering Titanic, and Olympic (her sister ship) hulls, special effects replicate shipyard sounds and sights.
Haunting vanished voices and the clang of steel upon on steel in the gloom strike an unbidden chord of kinship. My maternal grandfather was a Clyde shipyard fitter. A man’s world. A tough life. The depth of the catastrophe hits home. Skill, optimism, pride, strength, loss, all cloaked in today’s gloom.
I have the eerie feeling I’m invisible, an eavesdropping spectre. Ghostly voices reverberate around the slipway. So, this is what helplessly foreseeing the future feels like.
A chilling disembodied back-to-the-future moment.
Disembarking, I step onto the walkway and head for the light at the end of the tunnel.
Titanic myths abound. I learn that media of the day labeled the great ship as cursed since White Star Line declined to follow the customary practice of ‘christening’ their ships. I’d always heard Titanic was billed as ‘unsinkable’. In fact, her builders described her as ’practically unsinkable’, a subtle, perhaps prophetic, distinction. I note, too that all the Irish linen onboard was woven in the once thriving Belfast linen factories.
Official Harland and Wolff documents (in part) record: “Her proper title is the ‘Emigrant Ship Titanic’ and without the record numbers of emigrants crossing the Atlantic ships like this would never have been constructed. Titanic stands not only as one of the worst disasters at sea but also as a memorial to the zenith of mass migration across the world’s oceans.”
Adjourning to the Galley Cafe, I order coffee and an Empire biscuit served on Titanic Delft blue crockery, and avail myself of the building-wide free Wi Fi to Instagram a few photos.
Because this is Belfast Restaurant Week I head back over the bridge to try the nearby Ox restaurant for a late lunch. It comes highly recommended, and I’m not disappointed.
Whitewashed inside, it’s minimalist, but bright and elegantly casual.
Beyond the windows and the river I contemplate the epic structure commemorating an epic tragedy. Then, I concentrate on today – and my GreenTea Creme Brûlée.
If you go:
Check Titanic Belfast details at www.titanicbelfast.com
Short of time? Note special prices for late 1-hour visits before closing.
Northern Ireland is welcoming in every sense, including price-wise. You’ll find it much less expensive than the south. I was assured: “The countryside is a real treat. You can’t get lost. It’s all the scenic route.” And, that’s no blarney.
Contact Tourism Ireland in Canada: www.ireland.com/en-ca
Titanic Video (by Ursula Maxwell-Lewis): Here.
– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a journalist and photographer with a passion for history and off-the-beaten-track tales.