It’s hard to stand in Belfast’s fabled Harland and Wolff yard where RMS Titanic was built and not feel shivers. The historical energy is a forcefield that draws you in, like a low humming in the air. As you linger and try to imagine the Belfast of 1910 back into being, the pitch modulates higher. The desire to know, to see is all powerful. “Please, let me walk the yard for just one hour in 1910! Let me go back and look. I won’t interfere, I won’t tell anyone what is going to happen. But I want to see it. I MUST see it!”
Because this story could not possibly be true. Could it?
There – right there – is where the largest moving object in the world (at the time) was made. Thousands of people crawled like ants over the 900 foot long ship for two years, until that day in May 1911 when it was ready. A masterpiece. But also one of countless grand ships made by H & W over the years. Follow the wikipedia link for H & W and marvel at the list of ships they made.
The saga of Titanic (note how just “Titanic” is a more commanding handle than “the Titanic”) needs no introduction, no historical context, no lengthy explanations, no detailed backstory to deliver its force. In a few words you can tell a child the essence of a tale that will most likely keep them hooked for life. The story retains the power to shock and inspire disbelief – no matter how many times you hear it. In fact the more times you hear it, the better it gets.
It can’t be true, can it? How could it be true? How could it have happened? First of all, how could they have built this thing? And then, how could they have lost it? And on its maiden voyage?
Standing there, you can see it all. The work to build it, the hundreds of gray, rainy days with thousands of men streaming to work each morning to swing the hammer. The deafening sound of launch. The loading in of pianos and crystal and culinary hardware. The feel of a handrail. The grandness of indoor dining rooms packed with hundreds. Folding back a crisp sheet in a berth. Polishing a window. A passenger catching a solitary smoke on deck, watching the lights of the English coast recede astern.
And then the night of April 14-15, 1912. The darkness, the cold. The disagreements, the warnings. The sound. The feeling. “What was that?!” The panic. The creeping knowledge of what was happening. What was going to happen. Even though it was impossible.
You can’t make this stuff up.
In 2012, as the centenary of Titanic’s sinking approaches, Belfast is Titanic mad. There are plays, musicals, art exhibitions, walking tours. And a brand new Titanic museum (the largest on earth, naturally) is just about to slide down the slipway. I’ll be swinging back days before I return to the US in April to enjoy some of the celebratory din.
Of course, this being Belfast, the story of the Titanic is viewed differently by the two communities. In the big days of shipbuilding 100 years ago, most of the workers were protestants. Catholics were excluded from those jobs. For unionists today, there is huge pride in Belfast’s Imperial engineering history. But for Republicans, the subject elicits an almost aggressive indifference. They have no interest. When I asked our guide on the Falls Road mural walking tour whether the Catholic community could not also take some pride in Belfast’s shipbuilding heritage, he said no way.
Oh well. At least there’s a good joke about it:
“They (the Protestants/Unionists) may have built the Titanic, but we (the Catholics/Republicans) like to think we built the iceberg!”