‘Some people are just ahead of their time,’ says Gayle Campbell, my Titanic Walking Tour guide. ‘Molly Brown was, when she made the first-class women in their Titanic lifeboat row as though their lives depended on it, which of course they did, if they weren’t going to freeze to death. I think I was ahead of my time when I tried to start Titanic walking tours back in the ’90s, and no one came; how things have changed.’ She looks a little sad, but mostly she’s triumphant, vindicated by the shimmering presence of the building we’re standing in front of, and the fact that this star-shaped beauty, Titanic Belfast, is sure to quickly become one of Ireland’s biggest visitor attractions when it opens on March 31 – in advance of the centenary date of April 15.
There’s definitely something of the unsinkable Molly Brown’s spirit about Gayle, and even those of us on the tour who aren’t dedicated Titanic obsessives find her stories stirring. You also have to view her passion for the ship and its history in the context of the shame many locals associate with the lost vessel. According to Gayle, the people of Belfast used to feel guilty about the sinking of the Titanic, as if they had somehow contributed to the disaster.
Few people outside the city realise that the ship was designed, built and launched here. Ran, from China, who has come with Rock, from the Caribbean, pipes up from the back, saying he used to think the Titanic was built in Liverpool. We all nod in silent agreement; before the triumphant movie in 1997, didn’t many of us think the same?
It’s taken a long time for Belfast’s men and women to take pride in their shipbuilding heritage, one that saw hundreds of Harland and Wolff liners built and launched here during the industry’s turn-of-the-last-century heyday. Before the wreck of the Titanic was discovered in 1985, the few travellers prepared to come here were taken on taxi tours of the city’s political murals, to the stunning Antrim coast, on whiskey distillery tours and to preposterously picturesque pubs.
They were taken anywhere but to Queen’s Island, where I’m currently standing. It’s a drab, grey-fence-divided building site on a rainy Saturday morning in February, and were it not for the new edifice rising above us to precisely the height of the Titantic’s hull, and the fast-developing Slipway Park open space alongside, it would be hard to share in Gayle’s enthusiasm for the Titanic’s history, its relationship to the city, and its brief moment as the world’s largest floating object. In this dreary light, looking into the pool of rainwater in the bottom of the dry dock, what comes to mind is the tragedy of its sinking and the watery grave of the 1,517 passengers and crew lost on that April night.
Gayle’s grasp of stats relating to rivets, manpower, volume of water needed to fill the dry dock, length of slipway and sundry other biggest/fastest/highest details is impressive, but what resonate most are her stories about the men who designed and built the ships, from designer Thomas Andrews to the skilled riveters, welders and craftsmen and 35,000 workers employed here in the boom years between 1860 and World War I. Shipbuilding had been a key industry in Ulster for more than a century before that – beginning on the banks of the Lagan river in 1791, but the area was to suffer harder times during the postwar decline of Britain’s heavy industries. Helped by the evocative photography of Robert Welch – Harland and Wolff’s official photographer during the yard’s heyday – Gayle brings all this to life over three hours as she takes us to the shipyard’s drawing offices, pumphouse, dry dock, slipway and tool shed.
We wander round, gawping at the huge spaces, the musty smell of old machinery, the heft of giant spanners and impressive girth of a lone capstan, and we hear the stories of engineers, designers, crewmen and passengers and, by the end, we’ve all become Titanoraks. Gayle doesn’t think Titanic Belfast will make her work redundant. ‘It will only add to the tours. The old and the new coming together. The modern and the original all as they should be.’ Certainly the new £97 million space, designed in the shape of four hulls and star-shaped – a reference to the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic and her sister liners Brittanic and Olympic – will give her story a further visual dimension, with nine galleries and six floors of interactive and interpretive panels. Projections on to glass surfaces will give a sense of being at the ship’s prow or waving it off from the dock, and there’ll be a shipyard ride through life-size models, with elaborate computer-generated imagery recreating the luxurious interior design, and the memories and narratives of thousands of workers and passengers.
Another new addition to Belfast’s cultural scene might offer a more intimate Titanic-related experience and, ultimately, something more emotional for weekend visitors.
The MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) was opened earlier this month by (randomly) Mariella Frostrup, with earnest speeches from the likes of First Minister Peter Robinson, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and chair of the Northern Ireland Arts Council Bob Collins (who managed to quote Churchill, Hegel and a Chinese poet in his). It will give Belfast three new galleries that will bring major shows to the city (including an inaugural exhibition of works by William Conor and LS Lowry), a dance studio and rehearsal space, educational and workshop areas, and a flexible performance space that will open with Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty’s timely ‘Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Enquiry)’.
At the launch, McCafferty spoke movingly about reading the testimonies of 97 witnesses who spoke at the month-long inquiry in 1912, and the courtroom drama promises to be just as moving. Plus, being bang in the middle of the city’s regenerated Cathedral Quarter, any Titanic experience here is likely to result in much more of a craic than anything you’ll find in the Titanic Quarter, whose regeneration looks likely to be led by commerce. But the balance of attractions – combined with the city’s great restaurants, art galleries and music venues – means Belfast now offers a lot more than just a great pub crawl and some shops.
As for the Troubles-seekers – well, they’ll probably want to go elsewhere for their ‘dark tourism’, at least during the year of the Titanic.
Try Northern Ireland’s celebrated seafood at Mourne’s Seafood Bar (34-36 Bank St; 028 9024 8544), choosing between traditional favourites like fish and chips and oysters or Asian-inspired dishes. James Street South Bar & Grill (21 James St South; 028 9560 0700) or the more upmarket James Street South next door are where local chef Niall McKenna serves up fab modern dishes using local meat, seafood and… rhubarb.
For a picturesque pint, head for the National Trust-owned Crown Bar (46 Great Victoria Street; 028 9024 3187), ultra-narrrow Bittles Bar (70 Upper Church Lane; 028 9031 1088) or ancient Kelly’s Cellars (30 Bank Street; 028 9024 6058). In the alleyways around St Anne’s, the live music scene spans everything from American roots at Black Box (18-22 Hill Street; 028 9024 4400) to indie at cosy boho bar The Spaniard (3 Skipper Street; 028 9023 2448) and traditional Irish music at the John Hewitt (51 Donegall Street; 028 9023 3768).
The sumptuous Merchant Hotel (16 Skipper St; 028 9023 4888) was voted Best UK Hotel at the prestigious International Hotel Awards 2011. Prices start from £180 per room per night. The Fitzwilliam Hotel (Great Victoria St; 028 9044 2080) is a striking modern hotel in the city centre. Prices start from £149 per room per night.