Monday 20 January 2020

Titanic memorial unveiled in Belfast to mark centenary

Jack Martin 12, a descendant of Dr John Simpson who perished on the Titanic, unveils a plaque in the new memorial garden at Belfast City Hall
Alex Aaronson 6, from north America, whose descendant Artie Frost 38, perished on the Titanic, in the new memorial garden at Belfast City Hall

A minute's silence was held today as a memorial was opened in Belfast marking the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic.

A great, great nephew of the ship's doctor helped unveil bronze plaques listing more than 1,500 passengers, crew and musicians who died when the liner struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic on April 15 1912.

The boat was built in a Belfast shipyard and relatives of workmen who made and crewed the vessel were present for today's ceremony.

Jack Martin, a 12-year-old descendant of Dr John Simpson, also laid a wreath and said: "I am proud that I am keeping the memory of my ancestor alive and it keeps memories fresh."

A letter penned on board the Titanic by the Belfast doctor to his mother is to be brought back to Belfast for exhibition.

The letter, from assistant ship surgeon Dr John Edward Simpson, was written on notepaper headed RMS Titanic and brought ashore at Cobh, County Cork. From there it was posted to his mother, Elizabeth, who lived in south Belfast.

Dr Simpson was married and had one son when he took the commission on Titanic. He had previously worked on another White Star Line ship - the Olympic.

In the letter, Dr Simpson said he was settling into his cabin well and that the accommodation on board his new vessel was larger.

Jack's father John Martin today said it meant a lot to him that the note was to be on display in Belfast.

"It is the last tangible object that we have from John Simpson, everything else that he had was lost," he said.

"It is the last thing that we know he actually touched, that means a lot to the family."

The service, held beside the city hall, took less than an hour and featured solo pieces by singer Brian Kennedy and reflections from actor Dan Gordon and minister the Rev Ian Gilpin.

Belfast Lord Mayor Niall O`Donnghaile, Jack Martin and a representative of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the vessel was built, laid wreaths at the new memorial.

The names of the dead, from all classes on the doomed liner, are engraved in alphabetical order on five bronze plaques.

When the Titanic, with its three classes of passenger, sank, a disproportionate number of victims were in third class. This is the first time all, including crew, are recognised on one memorial.

The Rev Ian Gilpin reflected: "We behold the Titanic memorial, we remember all those who perished and whose names are herein inscribed - men, women and children who loved and we loved, their loss still poignantly felt by their descendants. In the permanence of granite, marble and stone may there be a permanence in our remembrance, in diversity, in the colour and fragrance of the flowers of the memorial, that the memorial be an acknowledgement of the diversity of humankind."

After the wreath-laying a minute's silence was held for private reflection then the hymn Nearer My God to Thee, which was played by the band before the ship sank, rang out.

Una Reilly, chairwoman of the Belfast Titanic Society, said it was a special day for Belfast.

"The focus of the world is on Belfast and we are doing her proud," she said.

She added that shock had stunned local people into silence for many years but now they had found their collective voice.

"We are all proud of this ship. What happened was a disaster, she was not," she said.

That was a sentiment reflected in many of the speeches.

Lord Mayor O`Donnghaile said: "For more than 70 years, Belfast's rightful place in the Titanic story was barely acknowledged by people of this city.

"The human stories of those who built the ship and those who lost their lives were quietly set aside, the memory too painful, the loss too personal."

He said the healing began when in September 1985 the wreck was discovered by oceanographer Dr Robert Ballard and his team. He added today was about celebrating the building of the vessel as a remarkable feat of human endeavour while commemorating those who lost their lives.

He described the Titanic memorial garden as splendid.

"Here they are not just numbers, not simply remembered as a collective, here they are remembered as individuals with different stories to tell," the Lord Mayor declared.

Actor Dan Gordon read the words of the late president of the Titanic Society in Belfast, John Parkinson, whose father was a joiner employed by the Harland and Wolff shipyard and who said the ship would never go down.

John Parkinson watched as the ship was eased from the yard into Belfast Lough to the strains of Rule Britannia and bystanders waved handkerchiefs.

"Little did any of the spectators think that it really was goodbye," he said.

"What a tragedy, it just seemed impossible that this could happen."

Shipyard outfits the Harlandic Male Voice Choir and the Queens Island Male Voice Choir sang Calm is the Sea and the Belfast Youth Orchestra performed the instrumental A Little Prayer.

Then came the unveiling of the memorial, the laying of three wreaths and the minute's silence.

Relatives of the dead stepped forward to place single white roses on the memorial.

Nearer My God to Thee ended the ceremony.

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