The sinking of the Titanic exactly 97 years ago was marked by a solemn ceremony earlier this week at the Titanic Memorial statue outside the City Hall in Belfast. Wreaths were laid in memory of the 1,513 passengers and crew who lost their lives when the vessel struck an iceberg in mid-Atlantic and sank.
That dreadful event has resonated ever since through the history of Belfast where the great liner was built by the skilled craftsmen of the world’s greatest shipbuilders of the day, Harland and Wolff. Even today, the iconic global appeal of the Titanic’s name is said to be second only to that of Coca-Cola.
For many years, and for complex reasons not yet totally understood, Belfast seemed to turn its attention away from the tragedy of the Titanic. This was partly due to a prolonged community mourning, and a huge disappointment that this apparently unsinkable ship, which was made by the finest skills in Belfast, in fact foundered on her maiden voyage.
Since then, a virtual Titanic industry has emerged, with countless books, articles, films and learned papers on the subject. There have been complicated theories and counter-theories about every aspect of that terrible night, but one fact remains constant — the Titanic, the planet’s most advanced vessel carrying some of the world’s best-known celebrities, sank in the Atlantic Ocean.
In the midst of such sorrow felt by the people of this city and Province in particular, there may have been a sense of guilt as well. However, such guilt was unfounded. In the ensuing inquiry, Harland and Wolff was exonerated and the quality of its workmanship was praised. When the Titanic left Belfast she represented the most advanced maritime technology in the world, and she was a credit to the sweat and skill of the men who made her.
In recent years there has been an increasing body of opinion which rightly wishes to recognise the remarkable achievement of building the Titanic, and to give the vessel and its creators their proper place in history.
In the past few weeks, for example, there has been an outstanding exhibition in W5 of the Odyssey Centre which celebrates the achievement of Belfast workers in building the Titanic, and other vessels as well. This exhibition, which closes tomorrow, also places in perspective the ingenuity of men like Viscount Pirrie and Thomas Andrews who played such crucial roles respectively in conceiving and designing the Titanic.
Such creativity, vision and courage shows the best qualities of this city and province. Our own people need the opportunity of celebrating locally the achievements symbolised by the Titanic, rather than having to rely on exhibitions in other parts of the world where the name resonates with people of all backgrounds.
One of the most significant ventures will be the completion of the Titanic Signature Project in Belfast which will combine the vivid history of this part of the Harbour Estate with the reality of new beginnings.
There are those, as always, who criticise such forward-thinking, but there is no doubt that the Titanic will remain a major tourist attraction, on a world scale. This is the heritage of Belfast which needs to be preserved not only for the world but also for our own people. The unique story of the Titanic, in legend and reality, lives on and on.