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Pride of shipyard that will never be forgotten


Ocean icon: the Titanic being built

Ocean icon: the Titanic being built

Ocean icon: the Titanic being built

When RMS Titanic was launched in Belfast on May 31, 1911, there was widespread rejoicing for one of the greatest engineering achievements in maritime history.

Belfast's harbour estate was filled with thousands of cheering spectators. There were special stands erected near the slipways for shipyard directors and their guests, as well as the world's Press. Entrance tickets were sold to the public and the proceeds were donated to two local children's hospitals.

Belfast Harbour Commissioners, which owned the land on which the Titanic was built, were also among the important guests.

It was this influential body, formed in 1847 and following on from the Ballast Board founded in 1785, which had dredged many thousands of tons of sludge from the mudlocked harbour and had created the sea channels to make Belfast a world-class port.

They encouraged shipbuilding, reclaimed the land from the sea and built the infrastructure to create a magnificent harbour.

Without their vision, there would have been no shipyards and no world-class vessels like the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic.

The launch of the Titanic marked a red-letter day for her owners, the White Star Line, which also took delivery of the Olympic on the same date.

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Both Olympic Class liners had been created by the White Star Line and Harland and Wolff to challenge the great Cunard vessels on the lucrative transatlantic crossings.

The main guests on that historic launch day included the American businessman JP Morgan, who had helped fund the new liners, as well as the colourful Lord Pirrie, chairman of Harland and Wolff and J Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line.

All three had expressed a wish to join the Titanic on her maiden voyage, but only Ismay made the journey and he was one of the fortunate passengers to survive the tragedy of her sinking less than a year later.

However, there was no sense of premonition on the day of the launch as Pirrie busied himself with the last-minute preparations.

Two warning rockets were fired and, at 12.15pm, Pirrie gave the signal for the third rocket. Then the massive vessel moved down the slipway, which had been greased with 23 tons of tallow, soft soap and oil. It took only 62 seconds for the Titanic to ease herself into maritime history.

The author Richard Hayward, then a boy, witnessed the launch from near the top of the Albert Clock. He later recalled: "I was absorbed in the spectacle and was listening to the sound of the great chorus of sirens and hooters that came echoing up from all over the docks and quays."

However, Hayward, with hindsight, noticed something else. He wrote: "The launch had been epoch-making indeed and epoch-annihilating, too, for that was the era of sharp social distinctions and smug self-sufficiency; the era in which man was deluded into the notion that Nature was at last his slave; an era which died with the Titanic itself."

Nevertheless, on the day of the launch, Lord Pirrie could be justifiably proud of the achievement of Harland and the army of shipyardmen who had toiled hard in dangerous conditions for low pay to build the Titanic.

This was also a day of great rejoicing for Belfast and the rest of the north which was then part of a united Ireland under British rule.

Dublin was the administrative capital, but Belfast was the more prosperous city, which was regarded then as the 12th-greatest in the United Kingdom.

The launch of the Titanic symbolised the zenith of Belfast's Edwardian self-confidence, which was mirrored by the completion of the resplendent City Hall in 1906 and the ornate extension of the mid-19th century Harbour Commissioners' Office a decade earlier.

Sadly, however, the glory days did not last. Following the launch of the Titanic in 1911, it was a tale of unmitigated turmoil for the north.

The Titanic sank the next year, the First World War broke out in 1914 and the flower of much of Ulster's youth perished at the Somme in 1916.

In the same year, the Easter Rising in Dublin led to the Irish War of Independence and the partition of the island. This was followed by a long economic depression and the outbreak of the Second World War.

For almost two generations, Belfast and its people knew virtually nothing but trauma. Yet, with typical resilience, they battled through to pay tribute eventually to the engineering skills and creative genius of those who had made the city's shipyards among the best in the world. Though the name of Titanic was later - and for far too long - associated with tragedy, the day of her launch in 1911 will always be remembered as a joyous triumph and a tribute to the most famous ship the world has ever seen.

It is this name that is now associated with the development of the Titanic Quarter and also with the completion of the exciting Titanic Belfast project next year.

The great liner which eased into the channel in Belfast harbour 100 years ago tomorrow will never be forgotten.

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