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Have we airbrushed the history of the Titanic?

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William Crawley | 10:56 UK time, Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Titanic under construction at Harland and Wolff

On Sunday morning, we debated that challenging question in a discussion many of you were moved to comment on by text, tweet and email. This year, Northern Ireland is commemorating the sinking of RMS Titanic with a loss of 1,517 people. When launched from the Belfast shipyard in 1911, Titanic was the world's biggest ocean liner, and Harland & Wolff was the world's biggest shipbuilding company. The loss of the Titanic was a massive assault to the industrial pride of Belfast, but we rightly celebrate the immense creativity and extraordinary hard work of those who built Titanic.

The question we asked this week was this: why was this shipbuilding feat completed by an overwhelmingly Protestant workforce? This answer to that question, our guests were agreed, remains a deeply troubling one: Catholic workers were very often excluded from the workforce because of their religion. Some spoke of "clear outs" of those Catholics who were employed at the shipyard. One even said the clear out was so comprehensive that we might properly regard Titanic as itself Protestant. You can listen again to this week's programme here and join the debate yourself.

Have we airbrushed the history of Titanic in this centenary year to make the story more acceptable to tourists?


  • Comment number 1.

    By "we" I assume you mean Ulster Protestants. The answer to the question is yes, you have airbrushed the history of the Titanic. But don't worry - us popeheads still remember.

  • Comment number 2.

    Will, I thought your suggestion to look again at the influence of sectarian division on the construction of the Titanic was interesting, but I'm puzzled as to what is the end goal of such investigation. Is the idea that in playing up the Titanic and H&W as great Ulster icons, we might be giving undue praise to a particularly protestant attitude towards what Northern Ireland is supposed to be about? That we might be glorifying the produce of sectarian conflict?

    I think a perspective on the "success" of the Titanic is always going to be very carefully conditional. But even without the standard objections, Egypt, for instance, still talks about the construction of the Pyramids, despite their creation on the backs of slave labour.

    "Landmark" need not always be positive; as, for instance, our Mural tours often speak to. Nor need it necessarily be cleanly black and white. The scale of the accomplishment of the Titanic is still independently worth celebrating, even in full acknowledgement of the scandals and suffering that goes behind it. And I think any honest account of our history must come to terms with the fact that no simple story will suffice to tell it.

    This is just as true of people giving an account of the engineering as it is of the history. If the engineering feat was only possible as a result of particular policies about the construction workforce, then this is something that the kids considering a career in engineering need to recognise. If it wasn't, then we should be saying that "actually, modern construction methods make the requirements of the time unnecessary", and explaining what it is about our current Industry that makes things possible without segregation.

    Believe me, I'd be interested to hear this account. As, I'm sure, would anyone aware of the current Foxconn scandal and similar problems with construction in the face of globalisation.

  • Comment number 3.

    How about we're just overdoing the Titanic altogether? When I returned to Northern Ireland about six years ago, there wasn't much about it. Rightly enough, it was pointed out that this amounted to silly neglect. There was pretty massive and enduring interest in the Titanic, particularly after the film. A voice from somewhere on high seemed then to decree that Northern Ireland must capitalise on the Titanic. Suddenly - and it was really very sudden - Titanic was everywhere, and Northern Ireland's inexhaustible talent for cliche was given full steam. Wink. If it wasn't buildings that actually looked like "the famous hull", then it was whole chunks of the city renamed after it. Murals started to appear with it on gable walls beside misspelt Latin bigotry. You could make a lifesize papier mache model of Titanic with local newspaper articles about... Titanic.

    While working at one of those papers, which has pretentions to being a "national", I found myself wondering who on earth (or rather, in Northern Ireland) we thought we were telling all this stuff to. Did it have an international readership I didn't know about?

    No, I suspect it was just a lemming-like following of a new decree and a Titanic failure of the imagination. Like its features editor who, after being told that heading stories with "how-" and "why-" this and that was a Good Thing, presumably because someone thought the features headlines too boring, went ahead and had practically every headline in that section of the paper prefixed with "how..." and "why...".

    I just had a quick look at the bit of the website that the features department does. We can take today as "any given day".

    I counted: One headline with Titanic in it. Nine headlines beginning with "why". Four headlines beginning with "how".

    The Titanic sank. It's never off local TV, it's never out of the local papers. Do we need more of it? For what? Are we so bored with the Titanic story as it is that we need to liven it up a bit by working in something of our other obsession? Hey, this Titanic stuff is getting a bit tired. What can we do? Hey! What about something about the Troubles. But the Titanic was out and sunk before the Troubles. Hmmm. Good point. I know: "How the Troubles were brewing even in the days of Titanic"

    Hey that might work! I'll get on it. "Catholic workers had that sinking feeling..."

    Groan. Groan. Groan.

  • Comment number 4.

    ...us popeheads still remember...

    You do? It was before you were born, no? Perhaps this is the problem with Northern Ireland. People remember too much.
  • Comment number 5.

    My paternal grandfather worked in Harland and Wolff all his life. He was a Shankill Rd man who signed the Ulster Covenant, but he was never what you would call 'anti-Catholic' per say. He was never in any of the Loyal Orders or anything like that.

    He told my father that there was suspicion among some unionists working at the yard around the time of partition (including himself, it has to be said) that some Catholics who worked there were potential 'fifth columnists'; i.e. republican sympathisers who might be secretly working towards destroying the success of Belfast's shipbuilding industry in order to destabilise the north's economy. It sounds paranoid I know, and it probably was.

    During WWII there was also suspicion among unionist shipyard workers that information about military movements and work at the yard might be finding its way into the wrong hands from these same sources and for more or less the same reason. Again - suspicions!!

    I'm not for a second suggesting that any of these conspiracy theories were founded. It's just that this has been the nature of our society. We've been divided into separate ghettos, schools, churches and cultural ethos for a very long time. Mutual ignorance breeds mutual suspicion.

    No doubt there was a lot of out and out bigotry in the Yard, but in some cases the 'cold house' many Catholics experienced there arose because of wild and ill-founded suspicions about ulterior motives - fuelled by ignorance and mutual suspicion - rather than by flat-out naked anti-Catholicism.

  • Comment number 6.

    Was the moon responsible for the sinking of the Titanic? A professor at Texas State University thinks so.


    I would prefer politicians to focus on solving the growing problem of increased segregation in Northern Ireland today than on pontificating on what things were like in the shipyard years ago. I do not see why the man who visits schools to talk about the Titanic in terms of engineering and design should be made to bolt on a passage about state sponsored sectarianism. Admittedly, the figures quoted by Susan McKay were shocking (of the 2,000 employees at Harland and Wolff only 70 were Catholic), but figures like these are not likely to draw in foreign visitors. Mike Nesbitt made the point that Northern Ireland's agricultural sector has seen the most growth - is it the most subsidised?


    Link to programme is broken.

  • Comment number 7.

    Know what?... I aint never gonna see the past.

    But, if I play my cards right I might get to glimpse some of the future.

    If playing up the Titanic puts dinner in the mouths of Ulstermen and women then I'm all for it, why shoot ourselves in the foot (again) in front of the world by dredging up the dirt.

    No harm to yee William but such subjects are worthy only of Nolan me finks.

    Viva-la-Titanic and every other thing we've got going for us!!

  • Comment number 8.

    A Protestant boat, you say? The Catholics would say the Holy See is safer waters but us Prots are incorrigible. The New World cannot be reached through holy water.

    And a pity we can't airbrush James Cameron's awful film. This year we're getting Titanic 3D. I find that troubling.

  • Comment number 9.

    Attending Primary School in Belfast, a stones throw from, "The Yard", (Colloquial term for the shipyard), we were taught the glory of that achievement, she was the largest ship, she was the fastest ship, she was built by the graft and labour of Belfast men, she was ours, and she was glorious, twas a sad day when she sank. Indeed no one in their right frame of mind could deny any of these statements, indeed it is right and proper that we should remember such a monumental achievement in our history, and that it is my point, we should remember, but we should no cash in on it, as seems to be the fashion in Northern Ireland these days!

    I am well aware that it is the centenary year of that cataclysmic event, but I think that there are things going on, quite stupendously insensitive things that really rather annoy me. Firstly, it does not matter that this is the 100th Anniversary, because for as long as I can remember, BBC Newsline, UTV, The Belfast Telegraph, and others, (those listed are the chief protagonists), always, without fail, on a regular basis include some trashy piece of media news relating to the Titanic, and to be frank, people are fed up with it.

    This is only the tip of the ice-berg, (pardon the pun), for you see this deluge infects the whole of the media in Northern Ireland, and I think that it is high time it stopped, I believe that after this year the whole thing should be dropped, although I know that is not going to happen, too much money has been invested in the Titanic regeneration project in Belfast's docklands, but honestly I don't think that it will serve the community that built her any good! Would the money not be better invested in developing apprenticeship schemes in that area for the hearty descendent of the master craftsmen that built her? Rather than empty office suites and "Yuppie" apartments? Obviously not, cashing in on a tragedy and filling the coffers of the Irish Tourist board is far more important.

    There is a great legacy that we would do well to remember, but not to the gross extent that seems to be going on around us. There are a great many other things that Belfast can offer!

  • Comment number 10.

    A protestant workmate of my grandfather's told him one morning when they were coming off the night shift not to buy the Irish News on the way out, but the Whig or Newsletter as a crowd would be waiting to attack. He never really worked there again after that.

    There is an interesting connection with modern day under achievement by protestant boys in particular at secondary school who are twice as likely as catholic boys to fail their GCSEs (about 36% versus 17%). The tradition of full employment with no need for academic success has left its mark. Even if you look at the infrastructure - the Falls Road and Glen Road have two Catholic grammars - St Dominic's and St Mary's, and the teacher training college. The Shankill Road has nothing similar.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hear hear to NobleKnight.

    Belfast's media outlets have also failed to reflect the massive cultural change that has taken place on the ground, particularly among the youth, and constantly defaults to its well worn troubles narrative. The name for the media culture that predominates here is churnalism. I've had the notion for a while that the troubles caused brain drain in the media but also left a lot of mediocrities with news on a platter, and since the trouble stopped they're still wringing it out for every last drop. And I've thought even since I was pretty much still a kid that someone should pull the media on its own role in perpetuating trouble here. The standout example here was the appalling, gratuitous, perverse glee with which UTV covered the Drumcree standoff year after year, practically providing a clarion call to rally morons to the place, and dubbing it Drumcree I, II and III. Granted the media isn't as powerful as it likes to think, but I still reckon it has failed to reflect a fundamental change in people's consciousness here. Hey-ho. I'm out of it now. Thank goodness.

  • Comment number 12.

    4.At 15:36 6th Mar 2012, John Wright wrote:

    ...us popeheads still remember...

    You do? It was before you were born, no? Perhaps this is the problem with Northern Ireland. People remember too much."
    Similar , a bit, to what we do here in the South (USA).

  • Comment number 13.

    mscracker, Really?

    Oh yeah, it’s so boring and meaningless I almost forgot -- this morning was like every morning: I sat up in bed, raised my fist up, and cursed the North!

  • Comment number 14.

    Hi mscracker,

    Oh sorry. I already used that at Mardell’s ding-dong blog, which had a little US north/south hilarity. This one’s about Protestants vs Catholics. For this, I use my general curse for “Other.” I’ve decided to mix it all together so I can get to work on time.

  • Comment number 15.


    "The name for the media culture that predominates here is churnalism."

    I could not agree more.


    "There is an interesting connection with modern day under achievement by protestant boys in particular at secondary school"

    This is another issue that really gets my back up. I am sick, sore and tired of hearing from our so called public representatives that the Protestant Working Class Youth are to be frank, "thick", oh really? Well rather than play the blame game, as is so common these days, why not actually start to deal with the issue? Ah but you see nobody will, there are far more pressing matters to deal with at Stormont, "Shared Future", "Moving Forward", and all the usual buzzwords that our well paid MLAs bang on about. Yes indeed it is all very well meaning, in intent, but nobody is actually doing anything.

  • Comment number 16.


    "Yes indeed it is all very well meaning, in intent, but nobody is actually doing anything."

    I think you are being hard on our political leaders. All schoolchildren, Catholic and Protestant, are going to leave school with a sound knowledge of the Titanic. They may even learn to sing the theme tune of the film. If Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren came together to sing (maybe a competition) this could form part of the "Shared Future" and "Moving Forward" projects... no iceberg!

    Did you not read about Mike Nesbitt? He certainly did something. He raised Rory Mcllroy's recent golfing success as the "matter of the day" at the assembly. Perhaps, more golf in schools to follow?


  • Comment number 17.

    The Titanic might have been the largest ship, or passenger liner, of its day but larger ones have been built since and no fuss is made about them. Does anyone commemorate the Queen Mary or the Queen Elisabeth? Will anyone commemorate the Italian cruise liner which sank recently off the coast of Tuscany? I can't even remember its name now.

    What makes the Titanic remarkable is the fact that she sank on her maiden voyage due to the greed and arrogance of her designers and owners. The double hull did not extend high enough (cost cutting bad design) and the owners insisted that she be driven at a speed in excess of the limits of safety for an iceberg-prone sea area (to set a speed record for an Atlantic crossing and so generate more business).

    It is these negative aspects which should be remembered as a lesson for the future.

    The Titanic as a ship was a failed enterprise!!! Does anyone commemorate her unremarkable sister ship?

    Dennis Golden

  • Comment number 18.

    Was the captain drunk? Explosive claim contained in a letter written two days after the sinking by a survivor:

    "The Captain was down in the saloon drinking and gave charge to someone else to steer the ship."

    Una Reilly of the Belfast Titanic Society questions the claim. She "can't imagine that he would have been drinking with the passengers."


  • Comment number 19.

    Airbrushed out of history - certainly not! Sonar images show the full map of the shipwreck for the first time. Every public building in Northern Ireland should have a copy this image prominently displayed and experts should be paid to discuss its importance. The foyers of every school should have one too!


  • Comment number 20.

    It is typical of some people with a political agenda to flag up division around an economic initiative that will provide employment to many young people of all denominations in Northern Ireland. It may Good for column inches and the ever extending CV, but is responsible?

    We all know that no side will agree history in a divided society. To bring in talk about problems of sectarianism in the Yard is unbalanced and given the context of the time and the political events during the years leading up to the signing of the Covenant, (as comment 5 points out).

    The right forum for any discussion of sectarianism that occurred at that time of the building of the Titanic is when we assess the ‘joined up history’ of the time. The Titanic and Harland and Wolfe Company should not be used as political football. The achievement of the company, and the workforce who built it, cannot be underestimated or undervalued.

    No one, as far as I can tell, has estimated the religious affiliations of those involved in the building and construction of the Titanic and her sister ships. William’s question is misleading as, like shipbuilding today, the Titanic was built by sub-contractors from all parts of the British Isles. Harland and Wolfe had more than one Yard. The myth that the Titanic was constructed and built by Protestants is a gross insult to Catholics and is its self sectarian. Whatever building and construction that went on in Belfast was, as we might venture to say, ‘the tip of the iceberg’!

    Northern Ireland may still a divided society, but today something that we all can celebrate together without all this historical muck slinging and points scoring. We should all unite to enjoy the celebration and to welcome the immense opportunity for a new future, for ourselves and for our children.

  • Comment number 21.

    ***Titanic latest ***

    Songs of Praise "Titanic" performance at 17:10 tonight on BBC1. The chaplain of the "Titanic Quarter" will feature.

  • Comment number 22.

    " The chaplain of the "Titanic Quarter" "

    Now this makes me laugh, if ever I heard of a more pointless postion within the Church of Ireland, it must surley be this. You would have thought that perhaps the decline of the congregations of Ballymaccarett Parish Church, (formally St Patrick's), the closure of St Christopher's, (beside the Oval), the clousure of St Martin's, (Lower Newtownards Road, facing St Matthew's of the Short Strand), would have been of more importance. I can only assume that the mission to the Titanic Quater is more important that the mission to the decendents that built her.

  • Comment number 23.

    I think what most annoys me about the Titanic project is not just the blindness to the sectarian history of Harland and Wolff but the easy resorting to the past glories of working-class Protestants rather than any real plans to so anything about its current difficulties.

    True, jobs in heavy industry were reserved for the Protestant working-class to ensure their loyalty but since Thatcher destroyed this country's industrial base in the '80s they have been left high and dry. Owning to discrimination in industry jobs, the Catholic working class had to rely more on academic skills to get employment. And thanks to the infrastructure provided by the Catholic religious orders (whatever else they were guilty of), there are many more ways out of the Catholic ghettoes than Protestant ones for those willing to take them.

    The Titanic center is a white elephant that will not return its massive investment nor do anything substantive to revitalise East Belfast. The Protestant working class are not "thick" but they do seem to lack a culture where learning is as valued - and that is what needs rectified. Harking back, misty-eyed, to the days when Ulster Prods built the best ships in the world seems merely a means to help us forget how bad the prospects for the future really are for working-class Protestant communities.


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