Belfast Telegraph

The legend that sank in shame and rose in glory

The liner that few talked about for decades has finally been rediscovered, embraced and brought back home, says Alf McCreary

Given the massive worldwide publicity for the Titanic and the events leading up to this weekend's centenary commemorations, it is hard to believe that, for more than 70 years, she was rarely talked about in her native city.

All that began to change from the mid-1980s, when Robert Ballard discovered the wreck on the Atlantic seabed and, since then, Titanic has gradually regained the respect and pride back home that she first enjoyed when she sailed out of Belfast for the last time on April 2, 1912.

There are many reasons why Titanic was rarely mentioned in Belfast after she sank 100 years ago tomorrow.

Even her last moments led to confusion when the news filtered through.

The Belfast Evening Telegraph, this paper's predecessor, reported on April 15, 1912 that Titanic 'has been in collision with an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland and latest accounts report that she is sinking'.

The news hardened the next day and the Telegraph reported that 'a frozen portion of the element she was constructed to dominate suddenly called her to a halt, placed in jeopardy the lives of close on three thousand souls and set the whole world a-talking'.

Once the worst was known and the deaths of more than 1,500 people had been confirmed, a blanket of silence fell over the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which had built the world's greatest vessel.

Lord Pirrie, the chairman of Harlands, who had been prevented from travelling on the maiden voyage by illness, aged visibly at news of the loss, including that of his nephew, Thomas Andrews, the designer of Titanic.

The loss of Titanic was followed by memorial services all over the province and the establishment of a Belfast Relief Fund for the relatives. Within a day, nearly £5,500 was raised. The fund closed on May 17, 1912 at nearly £13,000.

There was also a generous response towards the Titanic Memorial at the City Hall, but it was not unveiled until several years later.

After this, however, the Titanic was shrouded in a decades-long silence.

The lead was taken by Pirrie himself, who declared that, at Harlands, it was business as usual. There was to be no mention of Titanic.

This tradition continued at the shipyard and the Belfast Harbour Office, where a picture of Titanic was scarcely to be found. As late as 1937, Sir Ernest Herman, the Harbour Board chairman, wrote a lengthy article on the port for the bi-centenary supplement of a Belfast newspaper, but there was no mention of Titanic.

Harlands chairman, Sir Frederick Rebbeck, wrote about "The evolution of the liner" and stated blandly that "the Olympic had been followed, in 1912, by the Titanic, almost similar in size, and then, in 1915 by the beautiful Brittanic ..." There was no mention whatever of the sinking of Titanic.

The official silence about Titanic persisted for several more decades, until 1985, when the wreck was discovered by the explorer Robert Ballard.

Suddenly, Titanic became news again - and especially so after the publication of Ballard's 1989 book The Discovery of the Titanic.

Several years later, there was also a breakthrough in Harland and Wolff.

Per Nielsen, a new CEO from Scandanavia, began to reverse the company's policy of distancing itself from Titanic.

A senior Harland's employee, Rodney McCullough, was asked to produce, with others, a brochure for a Washington economic conference. Significantly, the booklet was titled Titanic Park.

Another breakthrough on publicity took place in 1997 with James Cameron's blockbuster Titanic, which brought the story to a world audience.

Many theories have been presented as to why Titanic remained a virtually forbidden - and largely unmentioned - subject for so long.

Some people point to a long litany of terrible events, including the First World War, the Somme, the partition of Ireland, the post-war depression and the Second World War.

For almost two generations, there was nothing but trauma and it was felt that the sinking of the Titanic, which started off the train of disasters, was best not talked about.

Others point to a misplaced sense of guilt, even of shame, that Titanic sank on her maiden voyage. Una Reilly, co-founder and chairman of the Belfast Titanic Society, thinks that "shame" is too strong a word: "It was more a terrible sense of shock and a feeling of' 'How could this have happened to us?' There may also have been a sense of dented pride that a ship so advanced for that time had sunk on her maiden voyage."

Una Reilly's great-great grandfather was a skilled cabinet-maker at Harland and Wolff and worked on Titanic and her sister ship Olympic. A family heirloom is a chess board which he made from off-cuts from Titanic.

Una said that the discovery of Titanic's wreck had been a spur to create the Belfast Titanic Society, which was established in 1992. She said: "In 1985, the world was talking about Titanic, but not here.

"It struck me that this is our ship, she was built to the highest possible specifications and that there is nothing to feel guilty about. What happened to Titanic was a disaster - but she was not.

"I like to think that the creation of the Belfast Titanic Society played an important role in helping people to think of the achievements of Titanic and the pride in the craftsmanship that created her.

"I believe that, on April 15, the world will focus on Titanic and on her native Belfast and I am so glad that there will be a dedication of the Memorial Garden at the City Hall, where all the names of the victims will be recalled.

"In a real sense, Titanic has finally come home to Belfast."

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