Belfast Celebrates Centenary of Titanic Launch

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Bob Thomas / Popperfoto / Getty Images

A picture of the Titanic, which was launched in Belfast on May 31, 1911

One hundred years ago on Tuesday, the Titanic — then the largest and most luxurious ship in the world — slid down the greased slipways from her building berth and into the waters of Victoria Channel in Belfast Harbor. It was a moment of enormous pride and emotion for the men who had built her, and the euphoria of the cheering crowds was reflected in contemporary accounts of the launch. "If the circumstances under which the launch took place can be accepted as an augury of the future," said one Belfast newspaper, "the Titanic should be a huge success." John Parkinson's father Frank worked on the ship and watched as the great liner was launched. "I remember asking him, 'How can a ship that big stay up in the water?'" said Parkinson. "My father's response was instant: 'Johnny, that ship will always stay up in the water.'"

But less than a year later, on the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic's maiden voyage ended in disaster when the ship sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The iceberg she struck ripped a 300-ft.-long (90 m) gash in her steel hull, and the vast inrush of water took her down, resulting in the deaths of 1,517 people. Back in Belfast, shipyard worker Frank Parkinson broke down and sobbed when he heard the news.

Before the world commemorates the centennial of the Titanic's sinking next year, Belfast has decided to celebrate the ship's launch, to remind people — including those in Belfast itself — of the city's ship-building legacy. As maritime historian and Titanic expert Michael McCaughan notes, the ship was built to the highest standards of safety. "She was at the pinnacle of naval architecture and marine engineering," says McCaughan. "With her double bottom and system of bulkheads with 16 virtually watertight compartments, she was designed to be her own lifeboat in the event of an accident."

The fact that the Titanic was a feat of engineering is often overshadowed by the ship's terrible end. For many years after the sinking, the fate of the Titanic was a taboo subject in the city where she was built. John Andrews, the great-nephew of Thomas Andrews, chief designer of the Titanic, says the disaster was never spoken of in his family "because it was such a terrible tragedy. It wasn't talked about in Belfast either ... There was always this sense of shame." Ian Frost's grandfather Anthony Wood Frost — known as Artie — was a member of the Guarantee Group, an elite troubleshooting team of engineers who accompanied the Titanic on her maiden voyage. The younger Frost also remembers his family's silence about the ship. "When the Titanic sank, it was terrible for my grandmother, very painful," he says. "She never really spoke about it again. Her youngest child was only 2 at the time, and it was days before she found out whether Artie had survived or not." It soon emerged that all the members of the Guarantee Group had perished.

But in Belfast today, the residual sense of shame about the disaster is fading, to be replaced with a more confident, commercially minded attitude and a renewed pride in the city's extraordinary maritime history. As historian McCaughan notes, "The Titanic is now being celebrated in her homeland as an important agent of economic, social and cultural regeneration." The city is holding a range of events, readings and tours to celebrate the centenary of the launch, and work is well under way on the Titanic Signature Building, an eye-catching new visitor attraction that tells the ship's story and showcases the history of shipbuilding and seafaring in Belfast. Costing $160 million and designed to establish Belfast as the home of the Titanic, it is a must-visit destination on the international Titanic pilgrimage trail.

"There is so much to be proud of," says Una Reilly, chair of the Belfast Titanic Society. "In celebrating the launch of the Titanic, we're not celebrating a piece of steel, we're celebrating the achievements, the craftsmanship of the workers. The centenary of the launch is an opportunity to get a different story about the Titanic out." Not everyone is comfortable with making Belfast synonymous with the Titanic. After all, she is a potent global symbol of tragedy and the shipwreck of dreams. But enthusiasts insist that what happened to the Titanic was not the fault of the men who made her. "The succession of elementary errors that took place on the ship's maiden voyage — people not paying attention to each other, not paying attention to messages coming through on the wireless — these mistakes were the reason the Titanic sank," says Andrews of the ship his great-uncle designed. "There was nothing wrong with the ship herself."

Which may be true. But there is still the fact that although there were 2,201 people on board, the Titanic had only enough lifeboat capacity for 1,178. "There was no effective lifesaving Plan B to prevent the passengers and crew perishing in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic," says McCaughan. And it was that one simple oversight that ultimately turned the Titanic from the greatest ship in the world to a byword for disaster.