As residents and local tour guides are quick to point out, “most ships built in Belfast did not sink.” It’s a funny statement that needs making because, unfortunately, this former shipbuilding superpower’s most famous ship did sink. On April 15, 1912, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and went down. More than 1500 passengers and crew lost their lives.
There have been a lot of ships that have sunk over the years, some with considerably more casualties than this one. And yet Titanic has captured the hearts and minds of people worldwide more than any other. But the fascination with what was, at the time, the largest ship afloat precedes her terrible ending, and lives on to this day in pop culture. But here in Belfast where Titanic was built, her memory has served to redevelop an entire area of the city to be a commercial and touristic centerpiece of the “new” Belfast.
The focal point of Belfast’s Titanic Quarter is, naturally, Titanic Belfast, a beautiful modern building holding more than 130,000 square feet of exhibits dedicated to the ship, and to the industry that gave rise to her. A self guided tour – with or without audio guide, though I opt to pay just a few pounds more for it – requires timed reservations, and guides visitors through galleries about pretty much every aspect of Titanic, turn-of-the-century Belfast, and the shipbuilding industry here.
Opened in 2012, Titanic Belfast is truly spectacular, and does an incredible job telling the story of the ship. And it does so from the exact spot from where she was launched, with an outline of the ship at that moment visible just behind the museum.
The story is one with which many are familiar. In the early 1900s, both shipbuilders and ship lines were trying to outdo each other in terms of size, luxury, speed, and modern amenities. RMS Titanic was built for the White Star Line which, along with Cunard, dominated the Atlantic crossing. Harland and Wolff, the predominant Belfast shipyard, was contracted to build three large and modern liners for White Star, Titanic being the second of the three.
Titanic took more than two years to build, and Titanic Belfast offers a short ride – yes, an actual RIDE inside the museum – that includes narration taken from letters and diaries of those who helped to build her. There were more than 2000 steel hull plates and upwards of three million rivets, to give you an idea of the scale. Remember, this was built by hand.
On May 31, 1911, RMS Titanic was launched from the slipway behind the museum for her tests of being watertight. At this time, the ship lacked most things other than her hull; those features from interior furnishings to the smoke stacks were added over the next year. More than 100,000 people came to watch the launch, roughly a quarter of Belfast’s population at the time.
Her maiden voyage was to go from Southampton to New York. Titanic Belfast has biographies of some of the more than 2200 passengers and crew “lucky” enough to get berth on this historic event. But, as everyone knows, during that first sailing, RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sunk with more than two thirds of those on board perishing. Roughly 700 were rescued.
One of the most interesting parts of Titanic Belfast is an exhibit near the end, talking about the sort of perfect storm of mistakes made that led to such a tragedy, and how the industry learned and changed from them. Titanic didn’t have enough lifeboats, and there were no drills to help prepare for a worst-case scenario. Both things have since been rectified industry-wide. Routes through the North Atlantic have been altered to avoid ice fields, even at the expense of a longer crossing. The SOS Morse code shorthand was adopted universally to prevent having to write out an emergency, as Titanic had to, and radio operators are required to be on duty 24 hours a day.
In all, the visit takes me just under two hours, though one could spend longer to read every panel of every exhibit, and to take more time in places like the virtual tour of the ship, which takes you from the boiler room up the decks to the bridge, or to read every name on the memorial. (The manifest is also searchable in case you are looking for someone specific or just to check out your own last name.)
But Titanic Belfast, while the centerpiece, is only one aspect of Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. The restored vessel SS Nomadic sits alongside. Nomadic was responsible for ferrying people out to Titanic and other giant ships.
Hotels and condos surround the area, which is fronted by a promenade called the Maritime Mile. Signage pays homage to Belfast’s maritime history, although one of the main attractions has nothing to do with that, but rather with Belfast’s current place as the largest film studio hub in Europe. Titanic Studios is just past the museum, and its most famous product, Game of Thrones, features in art along the walkway.
Odyssey, part shopping mall and part arena hosting Belfast’s ice hockey team, is another part of the redevelopment of the former shipyards, and even Harland and Wolff’s former offices are now Titanic Hotel, where Drawing Room Two (where plans for ships were drawn) is now a bar and cafe.
And towering over all of it are two huge yellow cranes. Dubbed David and Goliath, they are still used by what remains of Harland and Wolff today.
In a city known for its shipbuilding, it is only fitting that so much effort has been put into redeveloping the old shipyards, focused on and named after the most famous ship to have been built here, RMS Titanic. Belfast’s Titanic Quarter is innovative, unique, and very much a must-experience here in Northern Ireland’s capital.
Like it? Pin it!