Titanic – The 100th Anniversary

Another piece for the college magazine, one I had to research fairly extensively because I knew next to nothing about the Titanic other than that movie about Billy Zane shooting at Leonardo Di Caprio. The Phantom, I think it was called.

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of history’s most famous seafaring disaster. On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean and sank. 1,514 people lost their lives in the disaster, many of them Irish.

Millvina Dean, the last surviving passenger aboard the doomed ship, died in 2009, but the Titanic has become an icon of popular culture. Its appeal has grown thanks to books, documentaries and movies – most notably James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’. Interest is likely to peak as April 15 2012 approaches, when a number of events will be held to commemorate the Titanic’s sinking.

In Belfast, where Harland and Wolff built the ship over 26 months, a concert is among the festivities planned. Bryan Ferry will headline the show, held in Waterfront Hall, close to where the Titanic was built. A documentary telling the ship’s story will also be shown at the concert on April 14.

Titanic Belfast will also open to the public. The enormous building, which took three years to complete, is home to galleries and a banquet hall worthy of the ship it commemorates. Olly Murs and Sean Paul will be there as part of an MTV event called Titanic Sounds, held on April 13. On top of that Titanic Belfast will feature a light show, movie screenings, talks, exhibitions and a number of other events as part of a citywide festival.

South of the border in Cobh there is also a connection to the Titanic. What was then called Queenstown was the last stop for the ship before she set sail for America. Cobh was where the majority of the Irish on board embarked. They were mostly emigrants en route to America and staying in third class, which should be familiar to anyone who’s seen Leonardo Di Caprio dancing in ‘Titanic’.

Cobh is currently hosting a year-long festival, including a centenary week in April, to commemorate the ship. Two cruise liners, the Marco Polo and the Balmoral, will visit the town. A maritime fair will be on throughout the week, alongside exhibitions, dinners and charity events.

The main attraction of Cobh’s centenary week begins on 11 April, the same day a century ago that the Titanic made its final stop. ‘An Irish Connection’ is a series of concerts held over four days, until April 14, the day the ship sank.

The Titanic’s connection to Ireland is undeniably strong. For Belfast it is one of the cities greatest triumphs. Despite her sinking, the ship was an incredible engineering feat, larger than anything previously built. To accommodate such an enormous vessel required the construction of special slipways in Harland and Wolff’s shipyards.

Cobh’s link with the ship doesn’t share Belfast’s positive slant. The site where most of the Irish passengers boarded is inexorably linked with many of their deaths. With the Irish mostly emigrants confined to third class, they were last in line for the lifeboats.

Witnesses reported that men from third class were ordered from lifeboats even if they were lucky enough to make it to them. The crew working in the engine rooms, many Irishmen included, were trapped in the belly of the ship, with no hope of escape.

Even if all the passengers and crew had made it to the lifeboats, they were unlikely to escape. Only enough lifeboats for a third of the people aboard were on the ship. It’s sinking led to inquiries and eventual changes to safety regulations, but too late for the 1,514 who died as the ship sank, 110 of whom were Irish.

It’s strange then, to think of the centenary of such a disaster as a celebration, but Cobh and Belfast have reasons to celebrate the untimely sinking of the Titanic. Belfast of course, for the marvel of engineering and industry that the city produced, and Cobh for Irish links to the ship through its passengers.

Cobh’s year-long commemoration is about acknowledging the men and women who boarded the Titanic, their stories and lives. The festival is also a timely reminder about how emigration affects Irish lives, and how our history reflects contemporary life.

For more information on Titanic Belfast see http://www.titanicbelfast.com/Home.aspx

For more information on Cobh’s Titanic Festival see http://www.titanic100.ie/

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