Titanic's legacy in Northern Ireland lingers on

By Mark Simpson
BBC Ireland Correspondent

  • Published
Plaque at the Titanic Memorial garden in Belfast
Image caption,
A newly unveiled plaque at the Titanic Memorial Garden in Belfast features the names of those who died on the Titanic

Titanic has replaced the Troubles in Northern Ireland as the new T-word that everyone is talking about.

Some believe there has been too much Titanic talk, and that the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Belfast-built ship has been driven by commercial interests rather than respect for the dead.

From crisps to beer to tea-towels to ice-cube makers, there is no shortage of Titanic-themed gifts to buy in Belfast. Cynics call it Titanic tat.

There is a thin line between embracing the Titanic legacy in Belfast and exploiting it.

However, few people who watched the opening of the Titanic Memorial Garden at Belfast City Hall could argue that it was not dignified and reverential.

The oceanographer who discovered Titanic, Prof Robert Ballard, said after the service: "There is no other place I would rather be on this historic day than here in Belfast."


Even though one of singer Brian Kennedy's songs was more Top of the Pops than Songs of Praise, the overall tone was sober and solemn.

I know one cynical journalist watching on TV at home was forced to wipe away a tear at one stage, much to their shock and personal embarrassment.

There is no doubt that the nine-metre wide Titanic memorial plinth, with the names of the 1,512 victims stretched across it in bronze lettering, is a powerful symbol of the enormity of the disaster.

Listed in alphabetical order - from Mr Anthony Abbing to Mr Leo Zimmermann - the victims are not ranked in terms of class or rank.

The rich, the famous, the captain, the crew, the musicians, the young and the old are simply put together in one long list, set in stone.

The memorial, on the east side of Belfast City Hall, is open to the public and is free to visit.

If you want to see inside the new Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, you have to pay. You also have to take a short bus ride, or walk around 25 minutes to the Titanic Quarter across the River Lagan in east Belfast.

On the way, you walk past the Dock café. It is a new coffee shop, with an honesty box rather than a cash register, run by the Anglican chaplain to the Titanic Quarter, the Reverend Chris Bennett.

So does he think there is too much Titanic talk and Titanic tat in Belfast? Has the city gone too far?

In his latest online blog, Mr Bennett wrote: "It's a tired old complaint lobbed at us in Belfast that we shouldn't be celebrating a tragedy. Of course we're not.


"I think the balance, so far, has been absolutely perfect."

He believes there are aspects of Titanic to celebrate as well as commemorate - "the grit, risk and sheer hard work that built ships 100 years ago, and builds new communities today".

More than 50,000 people have visited the £97m Titanic Belfast visitor attraction in less than three weeks.

There has been a problem with 'staircase-gate' - complaints about the replica of the famous staircase on board Titanic not being part of the regular, daily tour. However, it seems likely that more public access will be available soon.

What the owners of the visitor attraction are desperately hoping is that the T-word does not go out of fashion in Belfast, and that in two years' time - even ten years' time - the Titanic is still the talk of the town.

It has already attracted tourists from across the world, but it needs to keep doing so. There is a danger of the novelty wearing off.

Northern Ireland has battled hard to change its international image. It wants to be known across the globe for tourism rather than terrorism.

What has been striking about how the Titanic anniversary has been handled in Belfast is the absence of any significant political controversy. Politicians on all sides have worked together. They have actively avoided controversy.

At the various commemorative events, unionists and republicans have sat together.

Literally and metaphorically, they have been singing off the same hymn sheet.