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Titanic Belfast

April 11, 2012

A century after the Titanic sank, the Northern Irish city of Belfast, where the liner was built, is finally coming to terms with the disaster and attempting to capitalize on the ship's unique pulling power.

Belfast in 1911
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In May, 1911, 50,000 people gathered on Belfast's docks to watch as the Titanic was floated from the slipway. Some 3,000 men had worked for nearly three years to build the largest vessel the world had ever seen.

"There was a huge amount of pride. It was seen then as a symbol of ambition, a symbol of confidence, of Belfast as being an industrial might," said Tim Husbands, chief executive of Titanic Belfast, a new visitor attraction built just 100 yards from where the ship was originally launched.

Less than a year later, the ship was lying at the bottom of the ocean. Four days into its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City, the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912. Of the 2,200 passengers on board, 1,500 drowned in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

"I think it took many decades for the city [of Belfast] to come to terms with that sense of association of grief, that sense of loss, that sense of embarrassment," Husbands said.

The ship under construction in Belfast
The ship was built in less than three years by some 3,000 menImage: dapd

Shipbuilding heritage

Jim Carlisle's grandfather started as an apprentice riveter in Belfast's shipyards in 1909. The Titanic was the first ship he worked on. Jim says his grandfather spoke very little about what had happened to the ship, and "never outside the family."

Now, though, that sense of shame about the fate of the Titanic has waned. And Belfast is no longer a center of shipbuilding. The industry began declining in the 1950s as a result of a fall in demand for ocean liners and competition from ports in Asia.

"It was only in the 1980s when Dr. Ballard found the wreck that we were able to come to terms with it and say actually, yes, what happened to Titanic was a disaster, but Titanic itself was a fantastic feat of engineering and fine craftsmanship," said Tim Husbands.

Belfast has also benefitted from the wave of Titanic enthusiasm that followed the release of James Cameron's 1997 movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In addition, the city has been growing in confidence after the peace process took hold in the mid-1990s, after decades of bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants known as "The Troubles."

Titanic Belfast
The multi-million-euro museum lends the city a new profileImage: DW

Come the millennium, Husbands and his team felt they had the opportunity to launch a new visitor experience to raise the profile of the city. The 121-million-euro ($131-million) project is less a museum, more an interactive exhibition, with nine galleries exploring the story of the Titanic and the city in which it was built. The building is now a landmark in what has become the city's Titanic Quarter, rising to the same height as the hull of the great liner.

There are hopes that the attraction will do for Belfast what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao.

"One of the reasons for its construction was that it would provide a platform for significant economic growth by increasing the number of tourists - particularly international tourists - coming to the area. We anticipate we'll get 425,000 visitors in our first year, of which 110,000 will come from out of state," Husbands explained.

Jim Carlisle says his grandfather would have been very proud to see the transformation in Belfast, "although I think it would have been a bit of a shock, because when they worked in the yard, there were thousands of people here, and now there are only a few hundred."

Harland and Wolff cranes
The iconic Harland and Wolff cranes tower over Belfast's docksImage: DW

Divisions reflected in shipbuilding industry

Belfast is still a city with deep-seated divisions simmering under its surface, and that's reflected in its shipbuilding history.

Four years after the ship sank, Ireland was in political turmoil. The so-called Easter Rising in 1916, mounted by Irish republicans with the aim of ending British rule in Ireland, led to the partition of Ireland into two states. Those divisions between Catholics and Protestants are still visible in modern Northern Ireland.

Even today, many people in the Catholic community in Belfast still see Harland and Wolff as a Protestant employer. The shipbuilding company behind the Titanic was employing some 35,000 people at its height in the early 1900s, most of them from largely loyalist East Belfast.

Community activist Kate Clarke is skeptical as to whether the nationalist or Catholic neighborhoods will see the effects of the massive investment in Belfast's Titanic quarter.

"I think it's a good project, but can people who live in these areas afford to go to it? The prices in there are absolutely disgraceful," said Clarke. "You know, for working class people - if you have a family of three or four and you're paying those sorts of prices, you wouldn't be able to afford it. It's like being on the bottom class, when you were in the Titanic. You'd be at the sinking end of it!"

An adult ticket costs around 16 euros, half that for children. But Husbands has pledged to work with all communities in Northern Ireland and says he has "cross-community representation" among his 250 members of staff. He adds that the 1911 census shows that the workforce was very integrated at the time the Titanic was built. "It wasn't until the 1920s that the challenges and the sectarianism became apparent."

Author: Joanna Impey, Belfast
Editor: Kate Bowen