When RMS Titanic plunged under the starlit North Atlantic at 2.20 on the morning of Monday April 15th, 1912, she left a sodden, terrified mass of over 1500 souls, thrashing and gasping for breath in the freezing water. As time went by, the cries gradually died out. But some would argue that they still echo, even to this day.
On both sides of the new world, stock markets plunged to the bottom in her wake. Some of the biggest, wealthiest and most famous names in the world had gone down with the ship, and their demise triggered a financial tsunami that shook the smug, supremely self confident heirs of the ‘Gilded Age’ to their very core. It simply did not seem possible. And yet it was.
But it was even worse than that; the sinking of the Titanic was a horrendous psychological blow to the nation. At the height of it’s power in 1912, the British Empire ruled one quarter of the entire world. It’s navies- both Royal and merchant- dominated the waves across the globe.
And now, the supreme technical manifestation of that empire- a ship lauded and hyped to the heavens- had gone down on her maiden voyage. With her, she took the self belief and crass self confidence of an era that believed that advances in science and engineering, bolstered by rampant, unfettered capitalism, could achieve and overcome anything.
Imagine the combined shock effect of 9/11, the Concorde crash of 2001, and the death of Princess Diana, and you begin to get some idea of the horror and sheer sense of incomprehension triggered by the Titanic disaster. In terms of confidence, nothing would ever be quite the same again.
But it impacted the place of her birth like nowhere else on the planet.
For three years, the Titanic had been an actual, physical part of the Belfast skyline as she rose from the city soil that gave her birth. She was the biggest physical structure in the city, and as much a part of it’s backdrop as City Hall itself.
Her actual building designation at the Harland and Wolff shipyard was that of Hull number 401. But the actual name was no secret. It was engraved on her bow in three foot high golden letters.
Over those three years, fifteen thousand Belfast men worked to build the Titanic and her twin sister, the Olympic. They grew through freezing winters, mellow springs, searing summers and early autumns alike. Like awesome twin cathedrals wrought in steel, they rose at the foot of the River Lagan, crouching in the lee of the Mourne mountains themselves.
Against the looming backdrop of their hulls, ordinary people lived, loved, were born, married and died each and every day. The Titanic was a true ‘Belfast Child’; an awe inspiring manifestation of the city and the sheer ambition that begot her. For all of her finery, her elegance and finesse, the Titanic was regarded as a living, breathing part of Belfast. She still is to this day.
The loss of the ship hit Belfast like a hydrogen bomb. How could it have happened? Was there something wrong with her construction? Some fundamental design weakness that could have been responsible? Was it just human error? The answers- together with those people best able to supply them- lay entombed in 12,000 feet of freezing ocean, lost to view forever.
Or so it seemed.
A kind of denial gradually took hold among the Belfast people; one quaintly at odds with the nickname of ‘Titanic Town’ that was grafted onto the scarred city. People gradually turned their backs on the sea, and the ship that was once their pride and joy. The here and now left little time or desire to indulge in wishful thinking.
Two world wars, Home Rule, the partition of Ireland, and more than three decades of ghastly sectarian violence kept the city always stirring uneasily, never quite at peace with itself. And through all of that, the memory of Titanic and her demise was just one more wound in the city’s scarred psyche that was best glossed over for many. If her name was spoken at all, it was usually in hushed tones.
Then, on September 1st, 1985, Doctor Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, did what many had dreamed of doing for years. He found the lost, elusive White Star liner, some 12,000 feet down in the North Atlantic.
The shattered, broken corpse of Titanic retained a kind of deathless dignity. That first photo of her bow, looming out of the murk, has become one of the most iconic images of the last century. As it flashed around the world, a resurgent tidal wave of interest in the lost liner spread like a prairie fire. People- lots of people- wanted to know more. At last, it seemed possible that some of those unanswered questions might be set to rest.
Subsequent expeditions examined the wreck in almost forensic detail. Over time, it became clear that there was no fundamental fault in the actual physical construction of the ship that had led to her demise. While some could- and did- fault the actual design, few would dispute that the same design was subjected to a freak set of circumstances that no one could have foreseen back in 1912.
These developments were followed worldwide, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the place of her birth, back in Belfast. The gradual succession of maritime autopsies vindicated the actual construction process of the ship. After eight decades of darkened silence, a sense of pride in the actual physical achievement that Titanic once represented began to resurface.
On May 31st, 2011, a crowd of several thousand people gathered on the spot where RMS Titanic had been launched, exactly one hundred years ago to the day. The day was bright and warm, and that crowd was swelled no end by an armada of press and media types from around the globe.
In a simple, moving ceremony that brought tears to the eyes of many (including this writer) the launching of the Titanic was commemorated and remembered in a style that was at once personal, warm, and charged with emotion. On the exact moment of the launch, the entire crowd broke into thunderous applause while, out on the river, a flotilla of small boats whooped, shrieked and rang bells to celebrate the ship, and the immense achievement she still represented.
The more wistful among us could have sworn that we heard the responding echo of a deeper, more melodic boom; a poignant triple chime of answering steam whistles from somewhere across time and space.
Just for a moment, a heat hazed vision ghosted across the memory; four giant black and yellow smokestacks atop a snow white superstructure. A massive black hull; as graceful as a swan, with a gold band running its length. Two tall, elegant pole masts raked at exactly the same angle as those four stacks. Just to make her look good, they said; just to make her look good…..
It seemed to me that, on that day, the prodigal child finally came home, to be once more embraced in the cradle of the city that gave her light, love and life all those years ago. Freed from a century of lonely, freezing darkness, the Belfast Child had come back to be among her own once more.
I, for one, hope they cherish her forever.