Titanic Belfast: Europe’s Leading Visitor Attraction. But what’s that smell?

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The Titanic Centre in Belfast has surprised me. Even the briefest look at the building tells you a lot of time, thought and expense has been invested in it. Frankly, I couldn’t see how visitor interest in the Centre would recoup the investment. I was wrong. The number of visitors has been huge, those visiting have been very impressed by what they’ve seen, and now the Centre has been voted Europe’s Leading Visitor Attraction at the World Travel Awards. As The Belfast Telegraph headlined it, “Titanic Belfast beats Eiffel Tower, Colosseum and Buckingham Palace”. The award has generated discussion and congratulation in the media generally, with happy consideration of the merit of the award and why the Centre was so popular.

It has always struck me as odd to the point of eccentric that a city would celebrate the making of a ship that sank on its first voyage. What is being celebrated – the workmanship? The effort involved in creating the ship? The Titanic is most famous for having hit an iceberg and sank. Whatever else the workmanship of Belfast offered, it clearly didn’t provide iceberg-proof ships.

This awkward fact – we made it, then it sank- has been steered around carefully in the Belfast story of the Titanic. But an even more glaring omission has been the make-up of the work force that build the Titanic. William Crawley put the question succinctly in his Will and Testament blog on 6 March 2012:

“Why was this shipbuilding feat completed by an overwhelmingly Protestant workforce? This answer to that question… remains a deeply troubling one: Catholic workers were very often excluded from the workforce because of their religion. Some [radio guests] 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”.


Mark Doyle, in an article titled “Don’t Mention The Iceberg” for the British Scholar Society also emphasized the canker of sectarianism in the Belfast shipyards:

“July 1912, during another period of Home Rule excitement and just three months after the Titanic’s doomed voyage, Protestant workers assaulted dozens of Catholic workers at the Harland & Wolff shipyards and elsewhere, forcing 2500 Catholics to flee their work. A few years later, after the First World War, returning Protestant servicemen expelled Catholics who had moved into skilled jobs in their absence. There were renewed expulsions during the partition riots of 1920-22 and again in 1935, in the depths of the Great Depression.”

A similar lop-sided system operated until the end. When the shipyards closed in 1999, of the remaining 1745 shipyard workers, just 69 were Catholic.

So forgive me if I don’t join in the high-fiving celebration of Titanic workmanship or the history of its construction. Like so many other areas of life here, sectarianism ran like an underground sewer which nice people prefer not to talk about, maybe even think about; and those who do talk about it are denounced as – yep, you got it, Virginia – sectarian.















27 Responses to Titanic Belfast: Europe’s Leading Visitor Attraction. But what’s that smell?

  1. Sammy McNally September 7, 2016 at 8:30 am #

    Jude, I have been in the Cafe a few times but didn’t have time to do the tour. Never packed when I was there. i have to admit to liking the place. Don’t know if though if any reference to the sectarianism within the workforce is evident on the tour?.

    Good idea for an irreverent and very politically incorrect newspaper headline though –

    ‘Disgruntled Catholics sabotaged the big boat’.

    • moser September 7, 2016 at 10:21 am #

      Sammy, I have done the tour with my daughter, and it does make mention of the sectarianism.

    • Sherdy September 7, 2016 at 5:06 pm #

      I think a more riveting story would be: ‘Sub-standard rivets sink the Titanic’!

  2. Antaine de Brún September 7, 2016 at 8:41 am #

    I checked the calendar on two occasions yesterday in order to establish that it was not 1 April 2016, once when I heard about the award and a second time as a I watched a BBC reporter wandering around with a large portrait under her arm during a documentary about NAMA. The sinking feeling returned as she haggled in a market trying to purchase articles for less than the cost price. It was clear she was dealing with the wrong Monet.

    • Pointis September 7, 2016 at 11:41 am #

      Very sharp wit today Antaine, I enjoyed it a lot. Keep it up!

  3. Twinbrook Lad September 7, 2016 at 9:07 am #

    The centre reminds me of the doomed Northern Ireland Events Company of the past, built to portray the wee six as a great wee place and sure, look at the marquee names we can attract. I remember thinking at the time something wasn’t right and that it was a huge waste of public money and of course, time showed it was corrupt to the core.
    As for the shipyard, I know first hand experience the bigotry handed out to Catholics. My brother was forced out ill due to the stress of his best friend being shot dead in the yard and roundly intimidated out. I also recall stories from my father, telling of his brother being thrown into the dry dock, told to swim for his life while they threw hammers at him from above.
    Yes, the shipyard has a strong history in manufacturing and famous constructions, but it is all tainted

    • Ryan September 7, 2016 at 5:57 pm #

      “. I also recall stories from my father, telling of his brother being thrown into the dry dock, told to swim for his life while they threw hammers at him from above”

      I heard those stories as well TB Lad. My great grandmother was born before the Titanic was built (she died in 1994) but she use to always tell my mother stories about the shipyards and how young Catholic lads were thrown into the water by Unionists. My great grandmother married a Protestant, even he spoke of the sectarianism there with disgust. My father’s mates father was given a bullet and told to get out of the shipyard.

      What isn’t spoke about much is the Protestants that were forced out of the shipyards too. They were labelled “Rotten Prods” by the Orange Order. Most of these Protestant men were forced out because they became friends with Catholics, they opposed the expulsion of Catholics or because they were seen by Unionists as sympathetic to Socialism or Nationalism. Many of these men were even forced out of their areas and had to move into Catholic areas.

      These protestant men and their families deserve acknowledgment too because they were as much a victim of this hatred as Catholics were.

      Indeed, famous Belfast comedian Roy Walker, a Protestant from the Shankill Road, was threatened at gunpoint by Unionists because it was rumoured he supported a United Ireland. He was given 24 hours to leave the North and his shop was burnt to the ground. It was also alleged the reason Walker was forced out was because he had Catholic friends….

  4. paddykool September 7, 2016 at 9:15 am #

    Yep …the hidden history of Norneverland. That’s all that good ,near -racist , bigoted gloop that is constantly covered up and unrecognised in much historical commentary.The books neatly skim through stuff like that. If the real story of this place was taught in school there would be much debate in the classrooms …and what of the exam questions?
    The real reason why the Titanic is such a hit is, of course, not that the ship was some wonderful piece of workmanship by Belfast protestants ,but that a lot of people have seen the daft hit movie that swallowed the world and topped the hit parade like “Gone With the Wind”….with Leo and Kate …and they fell in love with the sticky, doomed love-story.,,,Leo’s wee shivering head slipping under the waves when kate could have pulled him up beside her…(She was a strapping go-getting lass after all) Then there is the Sunday -television “Upstairs -Downstairs” aspect of glomming on the decadence of a long-forgotten era. There’s all that beautiful workmanship created by the massed poorest denizens of the slums of empire (In this case, Belfast slums full of tB and rickets….)for the idle -rich to sally about in and look rich and exotic. That’s what really brings tourists and visitors to Belfast’s answer to Disneyland. They want to see the beauty ,but like many of our unionist politicians they don’t want to look too carefully at the greasy underbelly of sectarianism and outright bigotry that festered for so long in the real , unremarked historical record.It’s about time they took ownership of a few of those cold facts.It is a curiousity that the Titanic would not have been remembered at all had it not sunk. That would have a curious alternative historical story where it ended its days as some de-commissioned rotting hulk in some ship’s graveyard. I don’t imagine they’d be queuing up to see that one.

  5. moser September 7, 2016 at 9:52 am #

    It can remain as the monolith to this sectarian state.

  6. Sammy McNally September 7, 2016 at 11:11 am #

    moser, thanks for that

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and conclude it is a negative reference…..

  7. Perkin Warbeck September 7, 2016 at 11:13 am #

    When RTE reported the triumphant lifting of the Titanic above all other Tourist Attrax, Esteemed Blogmeister, the tone was celebratory. A straightforward black and white story of good news. No ifs, buts or even Isaacs.

    Nothing at all nuanced about the report, at all. Seems like the nuancy boys and gals of RTE reserve their nuanced reports when it comes to good (alleged) stories about the Other Side of the Divide, like when the tone is invariably, snappy. Wolfishly so.

    The most celebrated snaps of the Titanic were, of course, in black and white. Taken by a man called Browne, curiously enough, though not with a Brownie camera. This was Father Francis Browne (no ‘i’), SJ who was given a gift by his uncle, Bishop Browne of Cloyne, of a ticket on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

    This was the same uncle who had gifted him his first camera and sparked his life-long interest in photography.

    Francis Browne, who was a clerical student at the time, boarded the Titanic at Southampton and voyaged to Cobh/ Queenstown via sunny Cherbourg , taking scores of snaps along the way. The ticket took him just as far as Queenstown/Cobh but during the short voyage he was befriended by an American couple who invited him to holiday in New York.

    An anticipatory Browne telegraphed his Jesuit superior in Dublin,seeking permission to continue his voyage. The telegraphed reply was a tad on the unambiguous side :

    -Get off that ship – superior.

    A disappointed Browne did as bid, only to find himself is a sea of mud four years later, as a chaplain at the Somme. One of his dozens of photos from this period became iconic: ‘Watch on the Rhine’.

    Meanwhile, his photographic record of the last first leg of the last voyage of the Titanic became the definitive record, as distinct from ‘My Heart will Deon’.

    On his return to Dublin he was appointed to the teaching staff of his alma mater, Belvedere College, where he had once been a classmate of J. Joyce, who later featured him as a character of sorts in ‘Finnegans Wake’.

    The Titanic is not the only mode of transport with which Fr. Browne was famously linked. When a recent graduate of Belvo was sentenced to death in 1920 Fr. Browne was detailed to proceed to the Lord Lieutenant’s Lodge in Phoenix Park to plead for clemency. His trip was in vain. Kevin Barry was hanged by the neck, one Monday morning the following week.
    This futile trip from and back to the school was by bike.

    In 1932, the same Phoenix Park not far from the L.L’s Lodge (soon to be renamed Aras an Uachtarain) hosted the Eucharistic Congress (!) where Fr. Browne met the creator of Fr. Brown (no ‘e’). GK Chesterton. It is not certain if he photographed the eminent English Catholic author, though it would probably not take too much dark room detective work to discover if he did.

    Back in the Fabulous Fifties, EB, we were fed a hoary myth and led to believe on Liffeyside that the hull number of the Titanic spelled ‘NO POPE’ backwards . Something to with the numbers 9 and 6, though being slightly less than numerically gifted, one was never quite able to figure that one out. Didn’t stop one from believing it implicitly, though. (‘Implicitly’ is a daarlin’ word, Joxer).

    Nothing mythical, however, about ‘NO POPE’ when it comes to the good ship RTE, going forward.

  8. Scott Rutherford September 7, 2016 at 11:27 am #

    If your letting the sectarian history of the shipyard stop you going to the Titanic centre your missing out Jude.

    It’s a great tour and the sectarian history is talked about along with the founding of Belfast, Maritime history and the story of the ship itself.

    They hold other events also, I went to the Race to the End exhibition a few weeks ago about the race to the South Pole.

    Rather than run the place down perhaps we should be happy at what the Titanic centre has achieved. It’s a complete success that generates huge amount of money and jobs. The HMS Carolina has recently opened and along with titanic studios, Belfast met, NI Science park, Proni headquarters that Titanic quarter will be some place as long as they continue building down there.

    Also I might add that if the Titanic quarter is built as planned it’ll be the largest non segradated community in Belfast.

    • Jude Collins September 7, 2016 at 12:47 pm #

      No I haven’t been, Scott, but I open the piece by acknowledging that (i) huge numbers have; and (ii) they seem truly satisfied by the experience. I’m not complaining about what’s been put in; I’m complaining about what has been kept out. If the tour includes a section with some of the information in the William Crawley and the other quotation, that’s great. But has it? And Talkback had a discussion of the Centre being given this award and I didn’t hear any mention of the sectarianism at the heart of the shipyards. Sam Thompson’s ‘Over the Bridge’ – worth seeing or even reading.

      • Scott Rutherford September 7, 2016 at 1:09 pm #

        It’s been a good few years since I done the tour Jude but if my memory serves me right there is a section about sectarianism in the yard. It’s certainly not the main part of the exhibit but it is mentioned in it.

        I’ve been watching out for a while now for a production of over the bridge by Sam Thompson as, although I know the premise of the story I would love to see it live.

  9. giordanobruno September 7, 2016 at 12:14 pm #

    The sourest of grapes being offered up by Jude I am afraid.
    The titanic industry is a worldwide phenomenon now thanks largely to the most recent movie.
    What would be the reaction if Belfast ignored this opportunity and did nothing for interested visitors on the history?
    Is troubles tourism also making capital from disastrous events? To me yes.
    Has Jude been to the exhibition? I suspect not.
    That has not stopped him from claiming the sectarianism in H&W has been skirted round or glossed over.
    Like Jude,I am surprised they have sustained the visitor numbers,but he clearly cannot bring himsefl to say well done, which is rather sad.

    • Ryan September 7, 2016 at 5:44 pm #

      “The sourest of grapes being offered up by Jude I am afraid”

      I had to look twice Gio because I thought your comment was written by MT.

      Your proving Judes (and my own) point. Jude isn’t offering up “sour grapes”, why would he feel bad about money coming into the City? The point of his article was that why would we celebrate a ship that sunk on its first voyage? that’s a reasonable question. Then he spoke of how the shipyard was a sectarian cesspit, something that certainly shouldn’t be celebrated, given the evils committed there.

      I remember when WWE Wrestlers came to Belfast 10 years ago, I went along with my young nephew to see them on their tour of Europe. I always remember the Wrestler “Bradshaw” who liked to insult the audience. He brought up the Titanic and said to the audience: “Your City is famous for a ship and what happened to that?! it sunk!”. Even though we knew he was acting/joking, I sensed the crowd did have a twinge of embarrassment about that fact.

      “Like Jude,I am surprised they have sustained the visitor numbers,but he clearly cannot bring himsefl to say well done, which is rather sad”

      Just like many Unionists cant bring themselves to accept the truth, Gio…..that’s very sad but dangerous too…..

      • giordanobruno September 7, 2016 at 6:44 pm #

        It is part of our history.
        Does Pompeii make the most of its disastrous history for the purpose of tourism?
        Do we conduct troubles tours around Belfast, with many black taxi drivers making a nice living from it?
        Does Jude feel bad? I’m not sure. Did he utter one word of positive endorsement for this success? I don’t see it.
        He tells us he has not been to the exhibition (as someone interested in local history,I wonder why not? It is only £12.50 for senior citizens) yet makes assumptions that the sectarian issue is glossed over.
        Would it not make sense to check first?
        If there is no mention of what went on the shipyards at the time I would see that as a serious omission indeed but I don’t know that it is true and I prefer the actual truth over assumption.
        As to its sinking there have been many reasons put forward and to simply blame faulty rivets, (and by extension ‘the prods’) is lazy.
        I put the same question to you as I did in my earlier post;
        Given the fame of the ship, would it not be madness if Belfast did nothing to entice tourism on the back of it?
        That is not to say it should omit any parts of the story, but such omission seems to be in Jude’s imagination as far as I can see.

  10. Mike Cummings September 7, 2016 at 12:47 pm #

    Loved the subtle humor with inconvenient truths. I must remember those
    SHIPYARD NUMBERS when I next quote “the Dud” about how most of the discrimination of Catholics was gone by the 70’s. Has that woman no shame??

  11. Jim Neeson September 7, 2016 at 2:05 pm #

    The Belfast Shipyard workers answer to the Titanic sinking was “It was alright when it left here” says it all

  12. Seán McGouran September 7, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

    In 1971, my father, who had worked in H&W for 25 years was at his locker, preparing for work, when a ‘mate’ walked up right behind him, making turning round to face him impossible.
    Said workmate waved a bullet under his nose, then showed him a pistol and told him to be out ofthe place by ‘dinner time’ – ‘lunch’ as is the universal name now.
    He (the Da) went to a charge hand, and said he was leaving, which he did with a fair number of other men. It was the joinery shop, which had an unusually large number of Taigs, because the construction industry needed joiners.
    He got the Dole immediately, no questons asked, because ‘everybody’ knew the score. He also got work in the building, but didn’t like it. The Union was regarded as the enemy, the work was seasonal, and the bosses (at least 75%, more like 90+% Taig) were tight-fisted slave drivers.

  13. donal kennedy September 7, 2016 at 3:33 pm #

    When The Titanic’s most influential survivor, Joseph Bruce Ismay, died in 1937 his Obituary
    in THE TIMES never mentioned THE TITANIC nor its owners THE WHITE STAR line, nor
    Ismay’s role as Chairman of THE WHITE STAR LONE nor his having commissioned the ship
    from Harland and Woolf.

    The DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY copied its entry on Ismay verbatim from THE TIMES.

    THE TIMES and the DNB had as their motto – DON’T MENTION THE TITANIC!

    Why Belfast wants to remember a disaster where 1500 innocent people died in a few hours
    is a mystery.

    A larger death toll than 6 days fighting in Dublin in 1916 whic resulted in most of Ireland
    disowning Britain’s Government and Britain’s (1914-1918) war and escaping the many nasty “emergencies” and other wars fought by Britain outside Ireland in the years since.
    Any sincere pacifist should regard the 1916 Rising more worthy of celebration than the
    construction of a giant ocean-going coffin.

  14. Oz 2015 September 7, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    There are plenty of opporttunities for Irish Nationalists here.

    Read this book
    The Rise and Fall of British Shipbuilding
    by Anthony Burton

    Catholics built the stoneworks in the drydocks and then were run out of the yard.

    Other opportunities.
    The English closed the shipyards in Newcastle Swan Hunters etc.
    Whilst Belfast got more government money by the British Government playing the Orange Card.
    In the North East of England and Scotland this Narrative needs to be brought to a wider audience.
    Let the English and Scots know of the Backstabbing Westminster bubble. Whilst given Harland and Wolff sweetheart deals for Royal Navy ships and two Ro-Ros paid for by the British MoD.
    Who knows an English or Scottish yard might still be in business today.

    BTW here’s a Google book extract of the above book.
    Read it.. It’s a must read

    No “oirish” “historian” would dare undertake such a work.
    imagine Eoghon “mehole” harris reading this???

  15. Barry Doherty September 7, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

    When I went to see what all the fuss was about there was a little voice that wondered if the sectarian history of the place would be tackled or ignored, I came away glad that it wasn’t ignored but the overall feeling was simply that it was worthwhile and i was glad I had went.

  16. Barry Doherty September 7, 2016 at 3:56 pm #

    Also, carrying on from yesterdays apres match video, have a nosey at this, classic stuff…..


  17. Ryan September 7, 2016 at 5:29 pm #

    “It has always struck me as odd to the point of eccentric that a city would celebrate the making of a ship that sank on its first voyage”

    Jude, the reality is Titanic is only popular for one reason and one reason only: the movie Titanic (1997) directed by James Cameron (my favourite Director). The movie was massive when it came out in 1997, it launched the careers of superstars Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio. The movie went on to make over a billion dollars at the box office (the first movie to do so) and won so many Oscars I’ve lost count. It still has a massive fan base nearly 20 years after its release.

    There have been other movies about Titanic before James Cameron’s blockbuster but the vast majority of them are cheap TV movies, the kind you’d see on Channel 5 in the afternoon slot. Cameron’s movie was such a huge hit due to the Romeo and Juliet storyline between Jack and Rose. Interestingly, the very first person to do a movie on Titanic was Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who made it for propaganda against the British Class System.

    “sectarianism ran like an underground sewer which nice people prefer not to talk about, maybe even think about; and those who do talk about it are denounced as – yep, you got it, Virginia – sectarian.”

    The shipyards where Titanic was built was a sectarian cesspit, it really was a sewer of Orangeism and Anti-Catholicism of the worse kind. Today Unionism talks of the shipyards with nostalgic pride. They either deny there was any sectarianism or they support it, either secretly or openly. It was Jamie Bryson who said on his twitter account that he “understands” why Unionists gerrymandered and discriminated against Catholics going back centuries. Unfortunately that justification of discrimination against Catholics IS widespread in Unionism. I said a few weeks ago that if majority rule ever returned here that Unionism would try to discriminate against Catholics again and I’m correct, there’s no if or but’s about that.

    Is this history of anti-Catholicism and sectarianism taught at Titanic Belfast? I really don’t know but it should be. Its the environment which Titanic was built in. Its a big part of the History of Belfast and all of Ireland. I’m sure Unionism would oppose that because it paints them in a bad (but very factual) light.

    If people research the Titanic they will see that the Hull Number of Titanic was “3909 04”. When these numbers are viewed on the reflection of water its very akin to spelling “No Pope”. As we know, this ship was built in an extremely anti-Catholic environment, anti-Catholicism was openly encouraged by its Unionist workforce. So its no coincidence that Titanics hull number is the same as the Unionist slogan “No Pope” or “No Pope Here”. It’s also been said that the boiler rooms of Titanic had anti-Catholic graffiti there too, which isn’t exactly difficult to believe either.

    I’m sure those who do want the truth about the shipyards to be taught to tourists will be bashed and insulted but telling the truth always was a courageous act. It reminds me of Jude being bashed on radio because he told the truth about Windsor Park/IFA and the sectarianism there. Apparently there was no sectarianism at Windsor Park anymore…..as the Rangers/Linfield fans showed less than a week later after that radio discussion when crowds of them were recorded openly singing about being up to their knees in Catholic blood…….

  18. joe bloggs September 8, 2016 at 1:56 pm #

    I agree with you, Jude, it does seem odd to celebrate failure. It is perhaps why so many people thought the 1916 centenary celebrations were so ridiculous.

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