I knew before I left on a recent trip to Belfast that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who don’t care about the Titanic, the doomed ocean liner that sank off the coast of Newfoundland on her maiden Atlantic crossing exactly 100 years ago, and another tribe of otherwise reasonable people who can’t seem to get enough of its tragic story. Count me among the latter.
There are more than 100 Titanic-related museums and monuments worldwide, and on March 31, Belfast added another to the list, unveiling a $150 million tourist center on the slipway where the Titanic was built from 1909 to 1911. At last, said Tim Husbands, president of the foundation running Titanic Belfast, the city has “a focal point for its Titanic and maritime heritage.”
For my wife and me, the nautical stuff was secondary. We hoped that the new Titanic Belfast space might have someplace for us to make like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the stars of James Cameron’s 1997 disaster epic, “Titanic.” We wanted to replicate the “flying scene,” where Leo and Kate, hopelessly in love, stand with their arms outstretched on the bow of the liner as it plows the Atlantic. We’re suckers for romance like that, and I don’t think we’re alone.
Belfast knows this all too well. The city will spend millions throughout the year on more than 120 events commemorating the new Titanic facility, including an open-air MTV concert at the site, as well as newly commissioned plays, concerts, street performances, art competitions, even a new serialized television show by creators of “Downton Abbey.” Church services will be held citywide to remember the more than 1,500 victims of the ship’s shocking wreck.
“There was a period of time after the sinking of Titanic that Belfast kept its head low and pushed away any associations,” said Mayor Niall O’Donnghaile at a mid-March news conference. “But at last we have woken up to the fact that this city has nothing to be ashamed of.”
Arriving in Belfast for our four-day Titanic safari, my wife and I were greeted by distant cousins, opinionated and helpful, who pushed us to do some digging before we set foot in the new building.
That led first across town to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, a sprawling collection of exhibits in a wooded preserve about seven miles east of central Belfast. Its Titanic exhibit is set in Quonset hut-like domed buildings, with a snack bar, a bookstore, seating for weary feet and a welcoming pace that allows you to slowly absorb the complex story behind the ship and its demise.
Huge blowups of historical photos hang on the curved walls and ceiling, and visitors walk over gantries and trusses as if they were schlepping around the 200-acre Harland and Wolff shipbuilding site where the Titanic — the largest ocean liner of its day — was built.
But it wasn’t just size that set the Titanic apart. Belfast was a provincial powerhouse of invention, and the Titanic was the first ocean liner with on-board refrigeration. First-class passengers enjoyed fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses and savories, chilled strawberries and champagne throughout what was to be a week-long crossing to New York.
We saw clothing and shoes worn by passengers on the ship and the plates from which they ate. We heard recordings of survivors and read letters and newspaper clippings about the tragedy.
Of course, class and wealth mattered. A first-class ticket cost 870 pounds, the equivalent of about $100,000 today. Not surprisingly, the 325 first-class and 284 second-class passengers on that fateful crossing enjoyed the best chow, private baths and hot and cold water in their cabins. They could walk the decks any time they wanted to, while the 708 third-class passengers were confined below, permitted on deck for only one hour a day. Locked gates and armed guards enforced the rules. Third-class passengers also shared only two bathrooms, one for men and one for women.
The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, three hours after hitting an iceberg.
More than 1,500 men, women and children died because there weren’t enough lifeboats on the ship. There was room for enough to save 4,000 people, but the company cut corners on safety, and the ship carried lifeboats for only about half those on board (which met maritime regulations of the day). Only 713 people survived, and there were almost 500 empty seats on the 20 lifeboats that were launched. The sea took 74 percent of third-class passengers, 76 percent of the 908-member crew, and 38 percent of first-class passengers.
One of the lost crew members was assistant ship’s physician John Edward Simpson. We met his great-nephew, John Martin, and great-niece, Kate Dornan, at the Belfast Titanic Society monthly meeting in March. Martin, a retired physician, spoke to a hushed auditorium about his great-uncle and shared photos and eyewitness accounts of Simpson’s last moments on the Titanic.
One of the physician’s nurses was so upset as the ship began to fall apart, Martin told us, that he poured her a whiskey and water to calm her. “‘Let’s drink to the mighty Titanic,” she said he joked with her.
“He went on deck to help load the lifeboats,” Martin continued. After securing the last boat, he gave his flashlight, a valuable and rare item for the day, to the engineer who was pushing off, saying that he would no longer need it.
“Goodbye, old man” were his last words, according to witnesses, Martin said.
Susie Millar, a retired BBC broadcaster whose great-grandfather was an engineer on the Titanic, is the only Belfast tour guide with a relative who was lost on the ship. She broke our hearts with the story of her grandfather, who was 5 years old when the Titanic sailed down the Lagan River with his father, Thomas Millar, on board. Before he left, Thomas gave the boy two pennies dated 1912 and told him not to spend them until he returned.
“Of course, he never returned,” said Millar, who drove us to the family cottage a few miles downriver, the spot from which her grandfather watched the ship and his father leave Belfast forever. “And my grandfather never spent the pennies,” Millar told us. “They’re on loan to the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.”
We spent a morning with another Belfast guide, Billy Scott, who took us to see the great dry dock where the Titanic got her three propellers, rudder and paint job. Soon tourists will be able to descend into the deep well of the dock, he said, where the plan is to show old movies, documentaries and other video treatments about the Titanic.
“It’s spooky down there,” said Scott, whose great-granduncles worked on the Titanic. “But it’ll give you an idea about the lives of men who made this ship.”
We even did a culinary walking tour organized by Kabosh Theatre troupe. An actor, tongue thoroughly in cheek, dressed as a zombie chef from the Titanic emerges from the deep to march tourists to a series of markets, fish houses, vintners, cheese shops, chocolatiers and other gourmet houses, both to taste the goods and to hear his yarns about the actual shops that provided delicacies to the Titanic a century ago.
Finally, it was time for Titanic Belfast, which bills itself not as a museum — there are no artifacts — but as a “sensory experience.”
And the first impressions were dazzling. Up close, you stand under a star-shaped building whose “points” look like a series of huge ships pulled close to the docks, their prows arching skyward. When you step back to look at it in profile, you realize that the star points are the exact height of the Titanic’s bow, about seven stories above ground level — a powerful reminder of what was built here.
Inside, a $22 tickets gains entry to nine galleries, all with huge videos and photos projected onto the walls and storyboards, often accompanied by actors recreating historic moments. The first gallery describes boomtown Belfast and is followed by a shipyard ride, a six minute gondola ride through what looks like gantries and work areas where the Titanic was built. The gondola passes beneath a replica of the ship’s rudder and glides over what looks like molten steel being poured for the hull. Don’t worry, it’s all plastic and lighting.
Old videos and photos show the ship’s launch, and there’s an interesting gallery nearby offering replicas of the first-, second- and third-class accommodations — though not the third-class lavatories. Another gallery covers the ship setting off on its journey, and then things get interesting.
The passageway narrows. Air-conditioning kicks in. The area becomes a tunnel, and you’re cold. Overhead, computer-driven images of stars and what looks like ice on the horizon appear. There’s a beep-beeping sound, and you realize that it’s Morse code, the Titanic sending out a distress call.
Then comes a big, dark room with four large-screen video schematics depicting the Titanic hitting the iceberg, and then slowly sinking. The last board, the largest, shows it going down. Look closely, and you see that the image is superimposed on what appear to be life vests.
Down a flight of steps is a room housing a replica of one of the lifeboats, and video presentations on crash investigations in England and New York. There’s a computer bank where you can access the names of the passengers on the ship, and four “myth consoles” — computer terminals that let you test your Titanic knowledge. For instance, true or false: The ship was christened with a bottle of champagne. False. The White Star Line never christened its ships.
The last gallery is a theater with a jumbo screen projecting sparkling images of the ship as it rests at the bottom of the Atlantic today. Provided by American explorer Robert Ballard, who helped discover the Titanic’s resting place, the system is connected to eight consoles where visitors can stop, zoom in and draw up information about what’s on the large screen.
We also got the media tour of the top floor, a banquet and meeting facility that’s generally closed to the public. That’s a real shame — and controversial — because it’s the best part of the building, with a replica of the Titanic’s grand staircase and a breathtaking view of the city and of the slipway below where the Titanic was laid out.
They’ve marked the ship’s outline in lights, and as we took in the dizzying sight beyond the glass wall atop the building, we realized that the Titanic’s bow would have been right about where our noses were.
At last, the Leo and Kate moment we’d been searching for.
Lane is a freelance writer in Washington.