Belfast Embraces the Titanic

Hundreds of people gathered to remember the 1,512 men, women and children who perished when the passenger liner sank on its maiden voyage about 350 miles southeast of Newfoundland on April 15, 1912. Among the crowd were relatives of the 28 victims from Belfast who never completed the 3,000-mile journey to New York.

In the keynote address, the lord mayor of Belfast, Niall O’ Donnghaille, tried to explain why it had taken so long for a city so closely associated with the Titanic to remember it with a memorial. He called the and his team of explorers in 1985 the beginning of a “healing” process.

“For more than 70 years, Belfast’s rightful place in the Titanic story was barely acknowledged by people of this city,” he said. “The human stories of those who built the ship and those who lost their lives were quietly set aside, the memory too painful, the loss too personal.”

But some here have pointed to a host of other reasons for what , a historian at Queens University in Belfast, called “a collective amnesia.”

Mr. O’ Donnghaille’s ancestors would have had little chance of securing a trade in the shipyards near the working-class Catholic neighborhood where he grew up. , the shipyard where the Titanic was built, illustrated the city’s divide: the better-paid jobs were the preserve of Protestants, while Catholics were lucky to find menial labor.

More than 10,000 men worked to build the Titanic. The launching was a sign of Belfast’s industrial prowess, and the sinking was not only a blow to its pride but also a threat to its economy. Then, months after the disaster, this part of Ireland became embroiled in a bitter battle over its status within the United Kingdom.

More recently, of course, Northern Ireland has suffered through 30 years of bitter conflict. The fighting has played out against the backdrop of increasing economic irrelevance as the heavy industries that once supported the economy moved to Asia and other low-cost locations. Under such pressures, the people of Belfast have long considered the Titanic a taboo subject, bad publicity for a city and region that could hardly stand more.

But in the past few years, Belfast has been setting aside thoughts of industrial failure and civic divisions and embracing the Titanic as a unifying symbol, as well as a commercial opportunity.

Much of the ceremony on Sunday was somber and stately. A highlight involved 12-year-old Jack Martin, named after a great-great-uncle who died on the Titanic, as the boy unveiled a granite plinth bearing five bronze plaques engraved with the names of the dead.

But other events were more festive, including a rock concert and a gala ball. Vendors are also trying to cash in on the fascination with the ship, selling everything from Titanic-themed potato chips to T-shirts emblazoned with slogans celebrating the notoriously black local humor, like “It was all right when it left here.”

A more permanent sign of the official efforts to fashion an inclusive image for a new Northern Ireland is the , an exhibition center on part of the site of the former Harland and Wolff shipyard that is advertised by the tourism board as “the world’s largest Titanic state-of-the-art visitor experience.” It opened a few weeks ago in a ceremony that included Protestant and Catholic leaders.

As is the case with other parts of Britain, the economy of Northern Ireland continues to teeter on the edge of recession. The problems have been made worse here by the economic collapse in the neighboring Irish republic. Northern Ireland and Ireland’s fortunes have become even more entwined, particularly in the area of tourism promotion, since the 1998 signing , which set a blueprint for Protestant-Catholic peace.

The Titanic exhibition center’s nine galleries chronicle the life of the ship from its planning, construction and launching to its catastrophic maiden voyage and the discovery of the wreckage. The center cost about $120 million to build, with the bulk of the money coming from taxpayers. It already ranks among the most expensive buildings in Europe, and projections say it will need to draw 290,000 visitors a year to break even.

The building is the cornerstone of a large urban rehabilitation project that includes plans for apartments and businesses on the site of several former shipyards, most of which have been derelict for decades. Harland and Wolff is still operating, but its employees now refurbish and refit ships.

The company’s famous twin Gantry cranes, known as Samson and Goliath, are still part of the Belfast skyline. But the shipyard, which reached a peak of about 35,000 workers around , now employs a work force that is just a fraction of the 15,000 employees who were there in 1912.

The new Titanic Quarter, as the shipyard district has been renamed, and the tourism push, have been supported by the power-sharing government established under the Good Friday agreement as part of the effort to build a new society that prevails over the old divide — and embraces the Titanic as part of the city’s legend that Catholics and Protestants can share.

Yet despite the generally positive local reviews of the center, some in Belfast offer a dose of skepticism about its long-term benefits.

Dr. Kelly, the historian, said expectations about the number of visitors were unrealistic. “It seems to be a case of everyone is on board and nobody wants to be the one to question it,” he said.

In a memorial lecture in Belfast last week, Dr. Ballard, the explorer, emphasized the human aspect of the tragedy.

“Titanic didn’t sink right away,” he said. “It was a beautiful night, the sky was clear, the sea was calm, the band was playing and the deck of the Titanic became a morality play. I think everyone is fascinated by all the different things that took place in that three hours, and everyone wonders what they would do.”