Saturday 24 March 2018

Children's cheers mark bittersweet Titanic launch

Adrian McAleese

A century ago, the people of Belfast celebrated one of their proudest days -- the launching of the supposedly unsinkable Titanic.

Yesterday, the city commemorated that bittersweet anniversary with cheers from schoolchildren in Edwardian-era costumes, the tooting of foghorns, and a hymn-singing dockside choir.

At 12.13pm, the crowd was told to clap, shout and cheer for exactly 62 seconds. That's the amount of time it took the Titanic's 269-metre hull to slide from its slipway into the water for the first time. Boats in the harbour blew their horns as a single flare was fired into the sky.

The doomed Titanic was launched into Belfast Lough on May 31, 1911. Just 10 months later, more than 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers and crew drowned or froze to death awaiting rescue after it struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage to New York city.

For decades Belfast didn't publicise its status as the birthplace of the world's most infamous maritime disaster.

But ever since James Cameron's film 'Titanic' became a worldwide blockbuster in 1997, Belfast has been working to build a new community and tourism hub on its once-derelict docklands, now christened the Titanic Quarter and one of the biggest construction sites in Europe.

"As soon as you say 'Titanic', most people think of the sinking," said the Rev Chris Bennett, who officiated at yesterday's ceremony.

"But here in Belfast we're trying to recapture that idea that the Titanic is something to be proud of. This fabulous, biggest man-made moving object in the world was built right here," added Rev Bennett.

While yesterday's ceremony recalled the launch of the Titanic, only the ship's hull and its three million rivets -- suspected now of metallurgical weaknesses that contributed to its sinking -- were put to the test that day. It took another 10 months for Harland & Wolff workers at a nearby dock to fit the ship's four smokestacks, decks, rooms and myriad luxury touches.

Behind the celebrations is a determined decade-long push to transform the former shipyards from an industrial wasteland into Belfast's sharpest new residential and tourist district, a £1bn (€1.14bn) project.

A new Titanic Quarter visitor centre expected to open before next year's 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking will focus on the liner's 1909-12 construction. Belfast City Council hopes it will attract 400,000 tourists annually.

Irish Independent

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