May 31st, 2011. A warm day in Belfast as we gather at the edge of the River Lagan, not long before noon. Despite the bustle and the numbers, there’s a sense of awe and a kind of stunned, expectant hush. Almost as if some invisible shadow were looming over all of us.
‘We’ were journalists and feature writers from all over the world. Film crews. Radio outlets.
Privileged VIP spectators and historians.There were officials from the iconic Harland and Wolff shipyard itself. They even remembered to invite a priest, together with a choir of local school children that performed hymns at the head of the slipway…
On the water, a flotilla of small, brightly coloured excursion boats stood just offshore, all of them jam packed with hundreds of water borne spectators. Each boat was dressed from bow to stern in brightly coloured signal flags that flapped idly in something that vaguely resembled a breeze.
Exactly one hundred years previously, to the very minute, over a hundred thousand spectators had blackened the same Belfast landscape to watch the culmination of a five year story. They literally filled the streets, and stood in their thousands on patches of waste land all along the banks of the river. Above them- on the very slipways where we now stood a century later- had loomed the enormous, pristine bulk of RMS Titanic.
May 31st, 1911 was the day that Titanic was launched. A century later, we were there to remember the culmination of Belfast’s greatest single achievement; a high water mark that would end in a disaster from which the city never really recovered.
The building of the Olympic and Titanic at Belfast was, quite simply, the largest single construction project anywhere on Planet Earth since the great pyramids of Giza. Before the twin sisters could even be laid down, the massive Harland and Wolff shipyard- the largest in the world- had to be virtually stripped and rebuilt in large part.
Whole new boiler, plating and builder’s shops had to be constructed. At the same time, a massive, thousand foot long graving dock- the biggest of its kind anywhere- was carved and configured from an adjacent slip of land. This dock- the Thomson graving dock- still exists to this day, though it is no longer used for ship work.
The space normally reserved for building three ocean liners was razed. In its place came a vast, sloping concrete ramp, more than four hundred yards long, that ended where we now stood- at the edge of the river.
Above it, a massive steel spider’s web of cranes, walkways and elevators encased the whole ramp. This massive lattice structure- the Arroll Gantry- would dominate the Belfast skyline for decades.
On the ramp, a pair of enormous slipways were laid, side by side. The biggest that the world had ever seen. Here, side by side, the Olympic and Titanic literally sprung upwards from the Belfast soil. For three years starting from the winter of 1908, their vast, emerging hulls literally loomed over the entire city.
To aid in the construction, an enormous, 250 ton floating crane was purchased from Germany, and shipped over to Belfast to do the heavy lifting. Only when all this was done could work on the actual ships even be contemplated.
It was all necessary because nothing on their scale had ever been built before. Olympic and Titanic were half as large again as any other ships in existence. Now, in one stroke, the two giant sister ships would be built, quite literally side by side at the same time. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before anywhere.
A work force of fifteen thousand sweating, swearing Irishmen worked on the twin hulls as they clawed at the sky. Through three bone chilling winters and searing hot summers, the two ships slowly took shape in their steel and concrete cocoon.The pace was deliberately staggered to keep them three months apart and, with the Olympic being the lead ship, it was she that emerged first, being launched to tremendous acclaim in the autumn of 1910.
Seven months later, on May 31st, 1911, it was the turn of Titanic.
The launch was picture perfect; in just sixty-two seconds, the biggest moving object on the planet was set afloat with breathtaking ease. Her progress into the river was almost a celebration in itself. The superstitious smiled in the sunshine, and noted that Titanic was, indeed, a ‘lucky’ ship.
And, to cap off the day, the newly completed Olympic was brought into the bay and handed over to her delighted owners. It was an incredible moment; one without equal in the history of British ocean liners to this day.
And this, rather than what followed, was what we gathered to remember on that sunny May day in 2011.
We all know the rest of the story. The sinking of the Titanic hit home like a hydrogen bomb; but nowhere more so than in the city where she had been built. For years, the Titanic had been such an integral part in the daily life of the city. She quite literally loomed above it; dominating the skyline from every angle.
Her sinking resulted in some kind of nervous breakdown that fractured the psyche of the city for decades. Her name was mentioned only in hushed tones; there was always the nagging doubt that there had been something wrong with the ship. But around the world, Belfast would forever be known as ‘Titanic Town.’
The discovery of Titanic’s shattered corpse in 1985 began a process of rethinking the story, and nowhere more so in her birthplace. Gradually, a sense of pride in the achievement itself began to resurface.
This was evident during our visit to that proud, hospitable sea city. “She was all right when she left here” was a refrain I heard a lot of. “The sinking was a disaster; the Titanic was not” was another. Fair enough, too.
The city of Belfast gradually reclaimed it’s prodigal child. After decades alone in freezing darkness, two and a half miles under the Atlantic, the spirit of Titanic- what she was, and the sheer sense of wonder she had once engendered- was embraced again by the city that had turned its back on both her and the sea for decades. It was a strange kind of homecoming, but a hugely emotional one as well.
The ‘Troubles’- those vicious decades of mindless, murderous, sectarian violence- were slowly coming to an end. Yet, as both sides realised, the Titanic was still there. The long shadow of the doomed juggernaut still looms over the city that gave birth to her even now.
Now, a century later, we were here to honour that achievement.
At exactly noon, a single white rocket spluttered and arced into the Belfast sky, just as one had done exactly a century before. In 1911, this had been to announce that the launch was imminent.
Minutes later, a second rocket soared up. In 1911, this second rocket had been to warn the spectator fleet on the river to move clear of the Titanic launch path. Out on the river of 2011, the second assembled armada did the same. And then something amazing happened….
A series of bells, whistles and horns on that little tribute flotilla began to moan, whoop and shriek across the waters of the harbour. It was a sudden, unexpected surprise, and I had to catch my breath. From my vantage spot on the edge of the Lagan, I was quite literally right next to where the Titanic had rumbled down into the same water exactly a hundred years ago. And yes, there was a lump in my throat big enough to play football with. But we were not finished yet.
For there was also an encounter with the Nomadic…
When the White Star Line built the Olympic and Titanic, they also built a pair of brand new, state of the art tender boats to ferry passengers and mail out to the ships as they lay at anchor off Cherbourg. Ironically, these were both completed on May 31st, 1911.
The first class passengers boarded the Nomadic; a kind of ‘mini- me’ Titanic. complete with ornate wood panelling and elaborate, moulded ceilings. If you watch Cameron’s film, it is the Nomadic that is tied up alongside the Titanic in the scene where the ship is at Cherbourg.
Incredibly, the real Nomadic has survived. After decades of neglect, she was returned to her birthplace in Belfast to undergo a complete, painstaking restoration. And, one hundred years to the day after her completion, I walked around her largely stripped, silent interiors.
I wondered if John Jacob Astor had briefly admired the same, preserved decorative sconces that I was staring at. As I stood on the fantail, it was easy to imagine Isidor Strauss wrapping a shawl around his beloved wife’s shoulders, keeping her warm that April evening as they stared in amazement at the looming, floodlit bulk of the Titanic, waiting for them out in the bay.
On that strange, unforgettable day, all sorts of thoughts ran through my mind, echoing silently around the ghostly shell of the once pretty little Nomadic.
I touched the same ancient, weathered bollards that had once held the mooring ropes that briefly shackled the Nomadic to the Titanic. For a few silent, awesome moments, past and present whirled around in my head like a quiet storm.
All things considered, it was an amazing, emotional couple of days. Belfast? Top city, wonderful people and hospitality. But that’s entirely another story…