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Belfast hopes to rise off ‘unsinkable’ heritage of Titanic

Titanic now a pride of the city and a source of tourism

- - Thursday, April 5, 2012

BELFAST — A century after the Titanic sank, this Northern Irish city, where the "unsinkable" luxury liner was built, is finally coming to terms with the disaster and hoping to make a profit off the tragic story.

"There was always a sense of guilt because it sank on its maiden voyage," said Sammy Douglas, a lawmaker for the Democratic Unionist Party who represents East Belfast, home to the city's shipyard.

"There are 300 to 500 Titanic centers across the world, but it's taken Belfast 100 years to celebrate it."

With the 30-year Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland fading into history, the Titanic has become an ironic symbol of hope for the future of the British province. Belfast leaders are trying to capitalize on its heritage to draw in tourists and promote economic redevelopment.

Titanic Belfast, a $123 million visitor center and museum that opened to a sellout crowd last weekend, is a major investment by city authorities.

The 40,000-square-foot building was designed by Texas-based architect Eric Kuhne to resemble a ship's bows and was constructed in an unused area of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the original vessel was built.

The Titanic, the largest ocean liner at the time, was widely considered unsinkable because of numerous safety features. But it struck an iceberg and went down in the North Atlantic in the early hours of April 15, 1912, four days after it steamed out of Southampton, England. The ship, which carried more than 2,200 passengers and crew, took more than 1,500 lives as it sank more than two miles to the ocean floor.

Hopes for tourism

Those with personal connections to the ship are happy to see local recognition after decades of efforts to ignore the Titanic's heritage and preserve Belfast's shipbuilding business.

"People didn't talk about it because they were still trying to sell ships and the objective was to save jobs," said Johnny Andrews, the great-great-nephew of the Titanic's naval architect, Thomas Andrews, who died in the disaster and is widely regarded as having played a heroic role by putting others' lives before his own.

Mr. Andrews hopes Titanic tourism will help boost Northern Ireland's economy, which was in decline for much of the second half of the 20th century.

"Those jobs created won't be a panacea, but I think it will bring a lot of tourists," Mr. Andrews said.

Given his ancestor's direct connection to the Titanic, Mr. Andrews also has the unusual experience of being able to relate directly to the media portrayals of the ship's tragic maiden voyage.

The sinking of the Titanic has inspired dozens of television specials and movies, including the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

"The Cameron movie, when it came out, we thought it was awful, although it portrayed our uncle well," Mr. Andrews said. "Recently, I've discovered there was a grain of truth in the story."

The disaster movie was also a love story that featured a fictional blue diamond necklace called the Heart of the Ocean. On board the real Titanic was a married man who had run off with his lover and had given her a blue diamond necklace. He went down with the ship. She survived.

Some Belfast residents are concerned about the appearance of celebrating the sinking of the ship.

"A little more restraint would have been welcome," writer Donald Clarke said in an article in the Irish Times newspaper.

The history of the Titanic is uneasy for reasons beyond the famous disaster.

The other legacy

The year of the ship's launch, 1912, was one of political turmoil in Ireland. The Home Rule movement, which favored a bill granting the Irish government autonomy within the United Kingdom, gathered strength across the country. It was defeated later by the Ulster Covenant.

Four years later were the first stirrings of the Easter Rising, which led to the partition of Ireland into two states, and the roots of "the Troubles," with decades of conflict between Protestants and Catholics.

The Harland and Wolff shipyard, which built the Titanic, employed 35,000 people, but the vast majority were Protestants. By Irish Catholics, it was seen as a Protestant-only company.

"We had the world's largest shipyard, and it was almost entirely a Protestant workforce and, therefore, [some say] it was virtually a Protestant ship," William Crawley said March 4 on his BBC radio show "Sunday Sequence," provoking a strong reaction from listeners.

The Rev. Mervyn Gibson of the Westbourne Presbyterian Church, known as the "Shipyard Church," said history will be acknowledged by his new project, called Titanic People, to be hosted by the church.

"What we intend to do is tell the story of the people of East Belfast, warts and all," he said.

Titanic People will focus on the often forgotten lives of the ordinary people who built the ship and will be open by the end of the year.

"We're trying to generate a tourist product that will be of interest," Mr. Gibson said.

"We're in for the long haul, not just this year. We hope to say: Come to the church where [the workers] worshipped, the streets where they lived, the places they drank."

Organizers hope Titanic People brings much-needed investment to impoverished East Belfast, an area that suffered from both the loss of engineering jobs and three decades of bloody conflict.

Many say Belfast already is accustomed to a kind of tourism far more ghoulish than the Titanic tragedy - the so-called "Troubles tourism."

Mr. Gibson said he, too, was skeptical about Titanic Belfast until he saw a preview of the attraction in December. Besides, history can't be ignored, he said.

"It really is impressive," he said. "If I go to Berlin, I'll want to see the Wall memorials."