For myself, I was intrigued to see how the city had fared since I last saw it and of course to see this new museum. Belfast is the blue collar, stare-you-down sort of town. It just never had it easy, it seems, having dealt with sectarian violence (and still dealing with it on some level), losing over 40,000 homes and businesses due to the Blitz in World War II and being known as the place that created “The Ship That God Could Not Sink.” But as Mick pointed out, Belfast is the sort of town that has continued to shrug off adversity and look toward the future. As to the Titanic, well to quote the Belfasters, "She was ok when she left us!"
So it was with some interest that I came to this city, driving across the beautiful countryside of Ireland, to visit a tribute to a disaster. The Titanic of course has been immortalized in song and movies. Our friends in Gaelic Storm got their big break in the last movie about the ship, playing in a scene in the steerage. They became known as the band that was in Titanic. (It was a huge magnet for drawing folks to hear their music, so I told people we were the band that did not play in Titanic. It didn't have the same effect somehow). Explorers have found careers made by discovering its wreck on the ocean floor. From the first glint in the eye of the American mogul JP Morgan, to the snow-globes in the gift shop, the Titanic has always been about exploitation of people by people.
I was deeply impressed by the building itself when we arrived. The structure is an amazing steel and glass creation, made to resemble several ships’ prows. It refers to the shipbuilding epicenter that Belfast was in the early 20th century. The shipyards of Harland and Wolf were churning out boats almost as fast as model T's in Detroit. The Titanic was one of three Olympia class ships that were built, and one of 10 ships being built at the same time at the enormous shipyard. Beyond the amazing museum building lies two monster cranes, "Samson" and "Goliath.” These yellow cranes were used in the shipbuilding business in the 70s and each took at least three years to be built themselves.
Immediately in front of the museum was a deep water quay which must have moored thousands of ships in its time. The quay ran into the distant ocean and several huge vessels laid moored still at the very farthest end. Opposite the museum sat the design rooms and some of the surviving assembly rooms of this once bustling shipyard. Further off in the distance was another large building like one sees for repairing jets at the airport. "Titanic Studios" was emblazoned on the upper right hand corner with a rendering of the iconic smokestacks. Between that building and the museum rose steel girders planted upright into the ground at parallel intervals. They marked the length and breadth of the gigantic Titanic.
Our group went into the museum, where we were greeted by a very nice docent named Heather. She gave us our passes and guided us to the entrance of the complex.
To describe the museum is sort of difficult, as it exists in several different floors and is made up of nine galleries. Each gallery deserves a three hour visit at least.
The first gallery contained an overview of what Belfast looked like in the early 20th century. It was the typical industrial revolution boomtown drawing a lot of people in from the countryside to work, specifically at the shipyards. Besides that work, there were other booming industries: the flax linen industry and of course whiskey making distilleries. The displays showed old whiskey bottles from several different distilleries, plus a very detailed representation of the flax linen industry.
Another display had a map showing the British Empire in all its glory. I had to chuckle when I saw in large letters "the Dominion of Canada" and underneath it in smaller letters simply North America. That meant the United States, and probably in some ways best represented the mentality that existed at this time. It was still the age of kings and queens, of intense national pride. And nobody deserved to have more pride than the British Empire. However already there was trouble on the horizon, as a new entity was arriving on the scene: the multinational corporation. The American financier JP Morgan owned the White Star Line and he had the financing. As two actors, portraying butlers of the period said to one another, "Imagine that, American money and British ships!"
But it was the Irishmen of Belfast who had the muscle. And the second gallery showed that muscle being put to work in the shipyards. The museum cleverly showed the sounds and sights of the Titanic being made by having a sort of shipyard amusement park-style ride for visitors.
We boarded an elevator that took us to the top of a facsimile of the Arrol Gantry, which was the crane used to build the Titanic. After the elevator door opened we were ushered along to where the cars waited for us. I got into one of these cars with Pam and Steve and his wife Mary. We descended into a darkened area, filled with the noise of clanging hammers and the glow of coal fires. The first scene showed how the heated up girders being bent by the workers in a sort of wooden mold to create the hull of the ship. Right there, I was gob smacked by the fact that this ship was created with brute force of man muscle.
Then we ascended to a scene of riveters working deep inside the ship. There would be three people to this task: a young boy who would drop a red-hot rivet from a coal burning fire into the gloved hand of a man who would place it in the pre-punched hole of two joined plates of steel. Opposite him on the other side of the steel plates was another man and together they both hammered that rivet into place. Once the rivet cooled, it created a watertight seal, as the two plates, bound by that now cooled and shrunk rivet, were pulled together.
We disembarked from the car and proceeded onto the scene of the third gallery which celebrated the launch of the great ship. After that gallery, the fourth gallery showed that once the ship was successfully launched it needed to be fitted out for life at sea. Workers now spent a great deal of time creating an elegant vessel: First by bringing in state-of-the-art six-story high coal burning boilers for the engine room and then building from the keel up the various class floors: third class steerage, second class, and first class on the top deck, with each deck getting progressively more elegant than the deck below it. This was one of my favorite galleries, it had the computer generated rendition of each level of the ship. You stood in a room surrounded on three sides with the generated scenes, so you felt you were actually on the Titanic itself. Slowly you rose up and got to see exactly what the ship looked like on each level. Like in the movie Titanic, the grand staircase was something to behold. Mary pointed out that the tiled floor of first class was a luxurious new invention destined to change the world: linoleum.
In the sixth gallery, the museum tastefully and respectfully portrayed the sinking of the ship. There were old recordings of actual survivors of the ship giving accounts of what happened to them. An excerpt of a poem by Thomas Hardy was on one of the walls:
...as the smart ship grew,
In stature, grave and hue,
In shadowy silent distance,
Grew the Iceberg too.
Probably the most poignant and sad example of heroism and tragedy were the actual Morse code pleas for help that were sent from the radio room of the Titanic. At first the operator seems almost disdainful of the reports of ice in the vicinity, telling at one point another ship operator in the area to clear the channel and "shut up" so he could connect with another ship called the "Chase On.” Almost an hour later, the same operator would be attempting to get that ship to come rescue the survivors of the sinking Titanic.
The next two galleries dealt with the aftermath of the sinking, and how Hollywood transformed this tragedy into the mythological epic of our time. I didn't stay too long in either hall, especially the latter as every so often Celine Dion's voice would start singing the Titanic theme song. That drove me out of that hall pretty quickly.
The final gallery had a huge screen of the discovery of the Titanic wreck. The display outside the theater showed how deep the ship sank in the ocean --almost a mile! Its true tragedy came into full view. The movie has footage of the actual exploration of the wreck, showing everyday items strewn about on what is called "the debris field.” One of the more sad scenes shows two pairs of women's shoes, one large, one small, almost facing each other as if a mother and her daughter went down together in some sort of lasting embrace. I had the same feeling that I had when we did the Switchback tour of Italy and viewed the remains of the poor victims of Pompeii.
On the main floor of the gallery was an incredible see-through glass floor that revealed a bird’s eye view of the nautical exploration of the wreck. On the ship itself are things that look like icicles hanging from parts of the metal railings and beams. Nicknamed "rusticles,” it turns out that these are forms of bacteria that are able to eat metal. Scientists hope to cultivate this bacteria to help mankind in the future breakdown potentially dangerous wrecks and other challenges that require the destruction of metal. In a very small and bizarre way, some good came out of this tragedy.
I couldn't help but feel that perhaps this tragedy was too modern for us to be exploring at this point. The items, too familiar, too personal. But perhaps it was also important to see just what happens when money, arrogance, overconfidence, and ice mix together. The great Iowa musician Dave Moore's soulful rendition of "God Moved over the Waters" was playing in my mind as I looked at these chilling scenes.
After we boarded the coaches, Nick and Dave took us into the sectarian communities of Belfast, where we witnessed another sort of tragic wreckage. Like the great ship Titanic, Unionist and Nationalist communities have struck what seems to be an iceberg of ignorance, ignoring their common humanity. Happily, there seems to be hope for these communities in the form of a shared commitment by those who want Belfast to have a brighter future. Perhaps the day will come when visitors will not be driven through desolate, treeless neighborhoods of high fences and murals proclaiming "our side,” but past parks with children playing instead. Perhaps it was just the mood I was in after visiting the museum, but I felt a deep sense of sadness and was very happy to be away from this reminder of how far Belfast still needs to go.
Yet in a way, I felt that these Belfast neighborhoods do us Americans a service of sorts. Certainly our politicians need to see these neighborhoods and come to a decision of whether they wish to continue to lead our country down the same path of pushing for "our side."
Click here to read Day 5