Does anyone else think Olympic's No 400 is really at the bottom of the ocean and not Titanic No 401
Belfast has spent close to £100 million on an impressive new museum to capitalise on global interest in the ‘Titanic’, which sank nearly 100 years ago
“It was fine when it left here.”
– The invariable Belfast response when outsiders query why the city is so attached to a ship that sank.
BELFAST HAS A story to tell. On the site of the city’s old Harland Wolff shipyard, now the expanding Titanic Quarter, a new structure has risen. Covered in 3,000 aluminium panels, reflecting water and shimmering light whenever the sun chooses to shine on the city, the building will soon be home to an exhibition on the construction, and the sinking, of the Titanic .
Project manager Noel Molloy notes parallels between the creation of the Titanic and the new building that commemorates the ship. “We started in May 2009, roughly the keel of the Titanic was made in May 1909,” he says. “The fit-out of the ship was in May 1911, and ours was more or less the same time. The maiden voyage was on April 2nd, 1912 – we’ll be open on March 31st, 2012.” And that is where he wants the similarities to end.
The world has been captivated by the Titanic since the ship struck an iceberg on the night of April 14th, 1912, and sank two hours and 40 minutes later into the depths of the north Atlantic. Belfast has spent almost £100 million (€120 million) seeking to capitalise on that global interest. It is hoped the exhibition will attract at least 425,000 visitors annually.
Molloy has overseen the construction of the Titanic Belfast building, from the digging of the first sod to its imminent completion. He is the project manager with the builders, Harcourt Construction, and is confident the structure will be shipshape for its opening on March 31st.
Molloy, from Co Offaly, sees this as an emotional as well as an engineering enterprise, and knows its importance for Belfast and Northern Ireland. He is quite taken with some lines from Thomas Hardy’s poem The Convergence of the Twain , about the ship, which are inscribed on one of the walls of the exhibition: “And as the smart ship grew/ In stature, grace and hue/ In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.”
“For three years they were building the ship here, but for three years – maybe 1,000 years – there was an iceberg growing,” he says. “The Titanic was late sailing here because Olympic came in to get repaired. It was late in Southampton because there was a coal strike. If it all had been an hour later it might have missed the iceberg. It’s as if the fates conspired to bring the two together – the convergence of the twain.”
There are still some final touches to add to the building, so on the day Molloy guides The Irish Times around the site, it’s all hard hats, boots and high-visibility jackets. The seagulls circling overhead would see the building as a huge star, an architectural reference to the White Star Line that commissioned the ship. Standing underneath the building, you have a sense of being under the giant prow of a ship – rather as the Harland Wolff workers would have perceived the vessel 100 years ago.
The sense of scale continues indoors. A high wall of rust-toned steel plates captures the sense of a powerful engineering achievement a century ago. It’s a six-storey building, with the first four storeys containing nine interpretive and interactive galleries. The top two floors feature a 1,000-seat banqueting suite that includes a staircase partially modelled on the staircase in the first-class section of the Titanic . This part of the venue has already been booked for weddings.
The tour is divided into nine sections, starting off with 1912 boomtown Belfast, moving to the building of the ship, its launch, the style of the ship from third-class to first-class cabins, the maiden voyage and the night it sank, to the aftermath, the popular culture it inspired, and how it was located in 1985 by the American oceanographer Prof Robert Ballard.
The story is recounted by sights and sounds and even smells, including recorded reminiscences of survivors, and film and photographs. There are also touchscreens and interactive exhibits to command the interest of what Molloy says are the four categories of people who attend such exhibitions, from those with minor interest to those obsessed with Titanic : “Toe-dippers, paddlers, waders and divers.” Molloy stresses that the tour, as well as being entertaining and informative, is mindful that more than 1,500 people perished on the morning of April 15th, 1912.
Titanic and Olympic constituted “a feat of engineering that was never seen before,” says Molloy. “It was about human toil and endeavour, all about engineering and steel and hard work, so right from the start we wanted to build up that emotive experience. It had to be big, but subtle – not Disneyland.”
‘These are the two key years to reposition Northern Ireland globally’
THE YEARS 2012 and 2013 are a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for Northern Ireland to build a tourism platform for many years into the future, according to the North’s DUP Economy Minister Arlene Foster. Seize the opportunity, is her message.
These are the “tipping point years” for Northern Ireland, echoes Alan Clarke, head of the Northern Ireland Tourism Board (NITB).
“These are the two key years to reposition Northern Ireland globally,” he says. They hope that a series of events with tourism potential – including the Titanic anniversary, the Irish Open golf tournament, and Derry becoming the UK City of Culture 2013 – will make up for the years of conflict when the North suffered from visitor drought.
But such events come at a cost, and the biggest expenditure is on the Titanic Belfast building at the old Harland Wolff shipyard. Late last year the North’s audit office queried the long-term viability of the attraction. After all there are just 1.8 million people in Northern Ireland, and some 6.4 million on the island.
Some 425,000 visitors are expected each year, but the venue could potentially run out of audience. Titanic Belfast must be a global as well as an Irish tourist magnet.
The cost of the building, including the value of the land donated by the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, is estimated at £97 million (€117 million).
That’s the investment. From here on in it must survive as a going business concern . Its chief executive is Tim Husbands, who for 16 years ran the Waterfront Hall, a building that helped the North put on a bright face in hard times – and a project whose merit was also questioned initially.
Titanic Belfast is hoping to bring in more than 110,000 foreign visitors each year. The estimated break-even figure is 290,000 visitors in total. “Given that the Belfast Zoo gets 300,000 visitors annually that really shouldn’t be beyond anybody’s expectations,” Husbands says.
He acknowledges the audit office’s anxieties but believes this project will work and survive in the long term, a confidence buoyed by the fact that almost 50,000 tickets have so far been sold. Tickets cost £13.50 each for adults with discounts for groups, families, children, students and senior citizens.
“We will make sure the exhibition is refreshed every two or three years, not wholly, but in small sections so that people have something to come back to,” adds Husbands.
“We know that the Titanic story is a significant one of international renown. It is a very human story. It’s been around for 100 years, and it’s up to us as a city and a country to make sure we make the most of this opportunity.”
Our Time, Our Place, is the tourist slogan for 2012 and 2013. For Southern tourists heading North, it’s being sold as Your Time, Our Place. This “ perfect tourism storm ” kicks off with the opening of the Titanic Belfast building on March 31st, followed by a festival.
On June 21st a Peace One Day concert will be held at the old British army Ebrington site in Derry – another new arts and tourist facility.
On June 28th, after an absence of almost 60 years, the Irish Open will be held at the Royal Portrush Golf Club. It is hoped that event will attract 25,000 visitors daily.
The new Giant’s Causeway visitor centre opens in early July.
As part of the Cultural Olympiad running in tandem with the London Olympics and Paralympics , a series of summer events will be held throughout the North, including the Land of the Giants theatre and arts production under the great yellow Samson and Goliath gantries in the Titanic Quarter.
In July the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race comes to Derry. From mid-October to early November theUlster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’ s will, even in these straitened times, offer a top-class cultural programme to mark the 50th year of the festival. Next year, Derry is the UK City of Culture, the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil will be held for the first time north of the Border, and Belfast is expected to attract 25,000 international visitors to the World Police and Fire Games. - GERRY MORIARTY
The other ‘ Titanic ’ town Cobh launches its own experience
COBH IS FORTUNATE – in a way – to have associations with two of the most famous ships in maritime history: the Lusitania and the Titanic .
Victims of the Lusitania ’s sinking are buried in the Old Church Cemetery outside the town, while goods and mail were ferried to the Titanic from the port of Cobh, or Queenstown as it was then called, when the ship anchored in Cork Harbour in April 1912. Tenders also carried 123 passengers out to the ship.
A new visitor attraction, the Titanic Experience Cobh, hopes to tell those passengers’ story and to explain the vessel’s links with the town.
The exhibition is located in the original offices of the White Star Line, through which the passengers would have passed before being brought out to the ship. The building lay derelict for several years before being leased by the current tenants.
Visitors go through the boarding process, and along the way learn the fate of the passengers and of the ship. Much of this is done through audio-visual presentations, holographic images and touch-screen technology, while some information is held behind makeshift portholes that can be opened.
Gillen Joyce, managing director of the Titanic Experience Cobh, says: “We wanted it to be fun and entertaining and also to give information that captured the poignancy of the fact that the last 123 persons left from this building for the Titanic .”
A large-screen presentation shows the sinking of the ship from the passengers’ viewpoint, while a narrator describes living conditions on board and the history of the vessel. However, there is very little here that a person couldn’t get online or in a book. Mostly, the story is told through sights and sounds, with little physical interaction.
On entry, visitors are given a ticket that doubles as a boarding pass. While waiting to board, a scrolling digital sign provides information. It’s out-of-step with the early 20th-century, and for me it’s an introduction of modern technology that adds nothing to the experience.
Actors appear on screens to guide the audience, sometimes popping up in clever places, such as on mirrors in the first-class cabin, but I miss the immediacy that real-life actors would bring to the experience.
I find myself making comparisons with another maritime exhibition, on the Dunbrody famine ship in Wexford, which is in a similar price range and employs real actors. There, visitors can sit on the cabins and bunk-beds that passengers would have used. In the Titanic Experience Cobh, two replica cabins are roped off and a hologram is used to tell us about the splendour of other rooms. If no original artefacts are being presented, why rope off the rooms?
The experience gets more interesting when it briefly moves outside. Here are the remnants of the old pier, which was used to load goods and people on to the two tenders, Ireland and America, that serviced the Titanic . However, parts of the pier are in a very poor state of repair.
That the White Star Line building has been restored and saved from dereliction is to be welcomed, and plans are afoot to put a design and craft centre and a restaurant into the lower areas of the site.
Gillen Joyce, who has put significant personal finances into the project, says it is still in development and will be added to in the future. Entry prices have been reduced while the owners continue to hone the experience. – BRIAN O'CONNELL