A traveller finds that the ghost of the ill-fated RMS Titanic still continues to loom over the city of its birth—Belfast
Without going into hyperbolic overdrive, let me just say that the Belfastians love James Cameron. And that’s stating the very least! What the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster Titanic did for Belfast — the charming little capital of Northern Ireland — perhaps even the original RMS Titanic couldn’t manage to achieve. Never mind the aquatic Leviathan’s disastrous maiden voyage, a little over a century ago, being the 9/11 of its time, spinning off numerous legends, myths and other less high profile cinematic adaptations. It is the ‘ Titanic’ of our times… yes, the same one that inspired a million, cheesy, arms-spread-out-wide photo ops, that gives the most obvious definition to this city by the River Lagan.
And Belfast sure knows how to cash in on every single penny the Titanic vortex throws its way collaterally. How else can one come to grips with the sheer size and audacity of the brand new Titanic Belfast Museum? I sure couldn’t, as I made my way from the compact city centre down to Queen’s Road, sauntering into the Titanic Quarter one chilly winter morning, squinting my eyes at the reflection of the feeble sunlight bouncing off the shards of glass and steel panels of the structure’s outer façade.
Opened in March 2012, on the same precinct that once housed the erstwhile Harland & Wolff shipyard where Titanic was built between 1910 and 1912, this six-storied edifice contains more than 130,000 sq. ft. of floor space. Most of which is occupied by the dry dock and pump house where Titanic and her White Star Line sister ships, the lesser known RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic were conceived from drawing board to the final rivet hammered in. Built to resemble the hull of Titanic, the inside of the museum is composed of a series of galleries that merge seamlessly with each other, taking visitors on a meandering, slow rollercoaster ride (literally!) through the bowels of the 3-D version of the vessel.
The grounds of the complex are also home to other Titanic-related exhibits like the fully restored SS Nomadic — the tender ship to the Titanic that has in its lifetime, served as a restaurant and a casino after it was decommissioned. Today, it sits lazily on its perch in a dry dock, a stone’s throw away from the main museum building. I also spent some time caught up in the brilliance of the giant toy modelling kit of the Titanic. Serving as a tribute to the shipbuilders who constructed the Titanic, and designed by English artist Tony Stallard, this 13.5 m tall bronze public artwork is modelled on the plastic frames of Airfix model kits, a few of which I played with as a kid.
Eschewing the numerous Titanic foot tours, coach tours, boat tours and even an iPhone app tour being peddled by megaphone-wielding, ‘My heart will go on…’- crooning tour guides, I headed out towards the leafy neighbourhood of East Belfast for a spot of Titanic wall art. And soon enough, on the corner of Dee Street and Newtownards Road, my sight met the steely gaze of Titanic’s bearded Captain Smith.
As the top dog of the city’s many Titanic-honouring murals, this one was a striking black and white painting showing Captain Smith overlooking the ill-fated liner with a banner proclaiming it to be the ‘Ship Of Dreams’ painted overhead.
The other one that caught my attention was the decidedly Dali-esque mural (melting clocks et al ) showing Belfast’s infamous giant Samson and Goliath shipbuilding cranes painted on a gable wall outside the Duke of York Pub in the city’s historic Half Bap area.
And it was in that same area of Belfast where I stopped for my ‘Titanic-themed’ lunch, at what else but the Titanic Pub & Kitchen on Little Donegall Street! Starting off with a pint of Guinness beer, a plate of freshly shucked oysters and crab claws and progressing on to a main course of roast crispy supreme chicken and whisky forest mushroom sauce, I let the Titanic vibe sink in with all its might. I was, after all, in the same building that was once Robert Watson & Co., the furniture manufactures who made ornate tables and mattresses for Titanic’s first class passengers.
A quick hop away from the restaurant and onto the beautiful Donegall Square, I decided to end my Titanic day out in Belfast at the charming City Hall on a rather sombre, and dare-I-say ‘un-Hollywoodised’ note.
The grounds of this very Victorian monument are home to the Titanic Memorial, funded partly by local Belfastians, Harland & Wolff shipyard workers and families of the victims. Built out of fine Carrara marble in 1920, the memorial is a 6.7 m sculpture where Death is shown in a female form, about to place a laurel wreath over the head of a drowned sailor who is raised above the waves by a pair of mermaids. Now, that’s something James Cameron missed…