Wait, Belfast? Part of the legend of the Titanic? The most famously-doomed passenger ship tale of all time? Wasn’t she a British ship, sailing from Southampton to New York, that struck an iceberg and capsized over a century ago? How did Ireland play a part – and how could Belfast keep the ‘Ship of Dreams’ alive for us today?
Glad you asked.
Belfast has an integral place in Titanic lore, and is perhaps the primary destination today – with the possible exception of an undersea expedition to the final resting place of the legendary ship herself on the ocean floor in the North Atlantic – to immerse yourself in the fateful story of the Titanic.
That story ended on April 15, 1912, when over 1500 passengers and crew members of an estimated 2224 souls aboard the British luxury liner Titanic famously perished in the icy waters off the coast of Canada. The brand-new ship, the largest ship afloat at the time, was touted as ‘unsinkable,’ full of extraordinary luxuries and groundbreaking bells and whistles. The Titanic was on her inaugural voyage – carrying immigrants to the U.S. and Canada as well as a who’s who of English and American high society on board. It remains the deadliest peacetime sinking of a passenger ship.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the tragedy played out over days of sensational press. It shocked nations and rocked dynasties that lost scions of business and aristocratic heirs. The saturation media coverage cemented the Titanic’s legend and laid the foundation for generations of creative works weaving tales and amplifying the myth of the ship and the people on board.
But that story began in the shipyards of Belfast, where the Titanic was born.
And for anyone fascinated by the Titanic’s tale, Belfast carries the torch for the doomed liner, with a Belfast Titanic Society, Titanic tours, attractions, exhibitions, events and experiences, as well as three key places to relive memories of the world’s most famous passenger ship:
Titanic Belfast in the Titanic Quarter
Where shipyards once opened up onto the sea in Belfast, a large-scale waterfront regeneration project, called the Titanic Quarter in honor of the city’s most famous product, now stands. The cornerstone of the Titanic Quarter is Titanic Belfast, a visitor attraction that opened in 2012 for the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking.
The Titanic Belfast stands on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard where the RMS Titanic was built between 1909 and 1912.
The spectacular, avant-garde building clad in aluminum shards was meant to evoke the shape of ships’ prows and stands 126 feet high – the same height as the Titanic’s hull. But its nickname has become ‘the Iceberg’ for its resemblance to a sharp and craggy chunk of ice – recalling the cause of the Titanic’s destruction.
Inside, you’ll discover historic and state-of-the-art exhibits immersing you in the booming city of Belfast at the start of the 20th century, original drawings, scale models, shipyard artifacts and interactive media displays recount the construction of the Titanic, including a giant scaffold and gantry and small cars taking you through a recreation of the shipyard.
You’ll progress through fascinating displays about the launch and fit-out of the ship, and you can walk across a replica of the Titanic’s wooden decks, sit on benches, and experience a computer-generated tour of the ship, from the engine room to the dining salons and even the bridge.
Further exhibits follow the maiden voyage and disastrous collision with an iceberg and the Titanic’s sinking. The iceberg is evoked by a wall of 400 replica life-jackets, on which an image of the sinking ship is projected. In a gallery devoted to the aftermath of the disaster, another emotional display: a full-size replica of one of the ship’s under-utilized lifeboats. For those with a family connection to the disaster, you can search passenger and crew lists for their names.
The final galleries allow you to explore myths, legends and pop culture that grew up around the Titanic – suitably accompanied by the famous Celine Dion song from the blockbuster film.
And you can see the Titanic as she rests now 12,000 feet below the surface of the sea, presented in collaboration with Dr. Robert Ballard, the wreck’s discoverer.
The Titanic Hotel in the Former Harland & Wolff Shipbuilders’ Headquarters
Next door to the Titanic Belfast, in the historic building where the RMS Titanic was designed, masterminded, and her construction supervised, is a half-hotel, half-museum, with an original collection of over 500 artworks, artifacts and photographs transporting the viewer back to the shipbuilder’s heyday and 'Golden Age of Ocean Travel.’
Many of the luxury Titanic Hotel’s 119 rooms have iconic views over Titanic Belfast and ‘nautical personality’ with streamlined Art Deco furniture, hanging ship’s lanterns, riveted panels and maritime artwork.
The heritage building also preserves and celebrates the restored Victorian Drawing Offices, with their three-story high barrel-vaulted ceilings. They are the only surviving examples of this type of shipyard architecture in the world (pictured, top.)
Drawing Office Two’s dramatic space was where many of the world’s most famous ocean liners, including the Titanic, were designed. It is now dedicated to drinks and dining. Villeroy & Boch tiles encircling the main bar are the same pattern as those used for the Titanic's swimming pool and First Class bathrooms. The fine, restored plasterwork in this room was also crafted by the same skilled craftsmen who worked on the great liners.
The Titanic Memorial Garden at Belfast City Hall
Funded by contributions from the public, shipyard workers and victims’ families, the Titanic Memorial in Belfast is the only memorial in the world that commemorates all of the victims of the sinking of the ship: passengers and crew alike.
It was dedicated in 1920, less than a decade after the ship’s fateful and incomplete maiden voyage, and includes an allegorical representation of the disaster in the form of a female figure depicting Fate holding a laurel wreath over the head of a drowned sailor being held above the waves by a pair of mermaids.
On the centenary of the disaster, a surrounding Titanic memorial garden was opened, and it’s the location where annual remembrance ceremonies have been held that keep the ship that sailed so majestically out of Belfast’s shipyards alive for residents and visitors to the city today.
Start Your Ireland Trip!
By Lynn Elmhirst, cruise/ travel journalist
Images courtesy of Tourism Ireland
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