Wednesday, 7 December 2011

IRELAND: ALL ABOARD AS TITANIC GETS SET TO SAIL AGAIN

REFLECTED GLORY: The remarkable Titanic Belfast building
Something very big is taking shape in Belfast, much as was the case just over 100 years ago. Back then, the finishing touches were being put to RMS Titanic, which was launched on May 31, 1911, an occasion commemorated six months ago with a series of celebrations.
Now, just a stone’s throw from the great ship’s long-redundant and filled-in slipway, a spectacular new addition to the city’s skyline, the £97 million Titanic Signature Building (www.titanicbelfast.com), is nearing completion. With its light-reflecting aluminium and zinc shell in place, the TSB, which will be known as Titanic Belfast, is already a sight to behold. When it opens on March 31 it’ll be the biggest purpose-built visitor attraction on the island of Ireland, with up to 500,000 people a year expected to pass through its doors. But I think that’s a conservative estimate. Or as they say in Belfast: “Aye, right.”
The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin is presently the most visited purpose-built attraction in Ireland, but I can see them crying into their pints when the first-year figures for Titanic Belfast are announced. That said, the massive investment in the North will hugely benefit tourism on both sides of the border, with so-called Titanoraks flocking to Belfast and to Cobh, Co Cork, the liner’s last port of call where 123 passengers boarded on April 11, 1912.
A band of dedicated people have taken on the monumental task of refocusing the world view that Titanic is synonymous solely with disaster. Its loss, and the deaths of 1,517 of the 2,223 passengers and crew on board four days after it set out across the Atlantic, were an appalling tragedy — most sorely felt in Belfast — that should never be forgotten. But the ship also represents a triumph of engineering and craftsmanship of which the city should be chest-burstingly proud. What happened to Titanic was a disaster, but the ship itself was a marvel.

LINK WITH THE PAST: Susie Millar and the two coins
Happily, as Titanic Belfast creeps closer to welcoming its first visitors there’s a buzz on the streets, but don’t expect the excitement to bubble over as the big day dawns — Belfast doesn’t do fever pitch. If ever a place had its feet set firmly on the ground and its emotions kept in check, it’s this one. For decades, any local asked about Titanic and the terrible fate that befell it would say: “It was all right when it left here,” and change the subject.
But that attitude is changing, and it’s thanks in no small part to people like Susie Millar, the great granddaughter of 33-year-old Harland and Wolff engineer and widower Thomas Millar who went down with the ship, leaving his two young sons orphaned. Susie, who runs the acclaimed Titanic Tours Belfast (www.titanictours-belfast.co.uk), tells the story of how, before he left on that fateful maiden voyage, Thomas gave both boys two shiny new pennies and told them: “Don’t spend those until I see you again.” The younger son, William Ruddick, who was just five at the time, kept his pennies all his life and passed them on to his son, Susie’s late father Rupert, who in turn gave them to her. Those coins are her most treasured possessions, and she has them framed along with a photo of Thomas in his straw boater.
Former TV news reporter Susie recently published a book, The Two Pennies, that tells the story of the Millar family in the lead-up to the Titanic’s launch and how its sinking affected the lives of so many people, particularly Thomas’s sons. It’s poignant and superbly told, and copies are available from Susie’s website.

HULL OF A GUY: Titanic walking tours boss Colin Cobb
Brothers Colin and Richard Cobb, who conduct walking tours (www.titanicwalk.com) of Queen’s Island where Titanic was built and launched, know everything there is to know about the great White Star liner and impart that knowledge with healthy doses of humour. Among the sites of interest their tours take in are the Harland and Wolff drawing offices where Thomas Andrews designed Titanic and her sister ships Olympic and Britannic; the Thompson graving dock, 880 feet long, 128 wide and 44 deep and holding 184 million pints of water, Guinness or whatever floats your boat, which was last used in 2001; and the adjoining pumphouse whose massive motors could drain the dock — which took 500 men seven years to build — in 110 minutes and where a fascinating video of archive footage is shown.
A couple of hours in the company of lifelong Titanic fanatics Colin and Richard is time well spent as they take visitors back to the days when Harland and Wolff ruled the waves. The yard, which employed 15,000 workers in 1912, has had to diversify to survive, and is now a world leader in the construction of wind turbines.
WHITE STARS: Sister ships RMS Olympic and Titanic
DRY THAT FOR SIZE: Thompson graving dock where Titanic was fitted out 

WATER SIGHT: The Thompson graving dock pumphouse
If Charlie Warmington ever gets tired of being the foremost authority on the history of shipbuilding in Belfast and the heritage of the River Lagan that runs through it, a new career awaits him as a Spike Milligan lookalike. The resemblance is uncanny, but while the late, great former Goon was a giggler, this guy’s humour is of the dry-as-a-cream cracker variety.
Charlie provided the chuckle-a-minute commentary when I joined an hour-long cruise of Belfast Lough and the Titanic sites on the little red and yellow puffer Mona (www.laganboatcompany.com), and everyone on board was hanging on his every word. We were also hanging on to anything we could when the skies opened and made the going a bit choppy, but that only added to the adventure as we viewed Titanic Belfast and the giant Harland and Wolff cranes, Samson and Goliath, and stopped for a few minutes at the edge of the slipway.
Last May 31, hundreds gathered on the same slipway to remember the day 100 years before when Titanic began her 62-second journey towards the water. TV crews from around the world mingled with the spectators and pointed their cameras skyward as a single flare whooshed into the air at 12.13pm — the exact moment the ship was cut loose — and all the vessels in the lough sounded their horns. It was a moving, magical moment.
Among those enjoying the celebrations was Noel Molloy, the Titanic Belfast project manager who has the huge responsibility of delivering the new building on time and who has latterly become one of the most avid Titanoraks around. Here’s a man who takes immense pride in his work, as did all those thousands who built Titanic, and his enthusiasm is contagious. If Noel, Susie, Colin, Richard and Charlie appeared on Mastermind, specialist subject you-know-what, the smart money would be on a perfect-round, five-way tie.


PIER-FECT: Titanoraks on board the Mona at Titanic slipway
MAKING WAVES: Young Carl Grant at launch event
Countless other people have minor and major yet equally important roles in ensuring next year will be one to remember, none more so than the team at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board whose wider brief is to keep Titanic Belfast and the whole Titanic experience in the domestic and international spotlight far beyond 2012. While they have an initial promotional budget with more zeroes in it than a colander, it won’t be hard to fill planes, trains, ferries and hotel rooms once the doors of the new building open, because word-of-mouth alone will pack the place for years to come.
The six-storey Titanic Belfast, which some local wags have said — not entirely inaccurately — looks like an iceberg, though its four 90-foot jutting wings more closely and intentionally resemble the liner’s bow, will house nine walk and ride-through exhibition galleries equipped with the latest 3D CGI and video technology. They’re Boomtown Belfast, Arrol Gantry and Shipyard Ride, The Launch, The Fit Out, The Maiden Voyage, The Sinking, The Aftermath, Myths and Legends and Titanic Beneath and Ocean Exploration Centre.
Nearby, in the Hamilton graving dock where it’s being restored, sits SS Nomadic, the Harland and Wolff-built Titanic and Olympic tender that was launched in April 1911 to convey first and second class passengers in Cherbourg and is the last remaining White Star vessel in existence. Now in the care of the SS Nomadic Charitable Trust and the Nomadic Preservation Society, it more recently served as a floating restaurant on the Seine in Paris before falling into dereliction and being moved to Le Havre. In January 2006 the Northern Ireland Department for Social Development bought it for €250,001 and, six months later, it was brought back to Queen’s Island, where it rightly belongs.
When Titanic left Belfast on April 2, 1912, never to return, scores of thousands of shipyard workers and citizens waved their handkerchiefs and sang “Rule Britannia”. Thirteen days later, when news of her loss reached the city where she was built, big tough men wept openly and unashamedly in the streets. In a few months’ time there will be good reason to sing again and, no doubt, tears will be shed. It’s taken 100 years, but Titanic’s finally coming home.

TITANIC BELFAST FESTIVAL 2012 HIGHLIGHTS
April 7-11, Titanic Light Show: Titanic Belfast will be in the spotlight in more ways than one when it’s officially launched with five nights of lights and laser shows and installations.
April 11, MTV Music Event: The Titanic slipway will be the venue for a huge outdoor concert.
April 14, Titanic Centenary Commemoration: On the 100th anniversary of the night Titanic struck the iceberg, the Waterfront Hall will host a spectacle of words, music and memories in honour of the thousands of ordinary Harland and Wolff workers who built an extraordinary ship and in memory of those who lost their lives.


MAIN MAN: Oceanographer Dr. Ballard
April 14, Robert Ballard: American oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in September 1985, will present previously unseen material from the liner when he addresses an audience in the new building.
April 22-May 20, Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912): A specially-commissioned verbatim play by Northern Ireland’s premier playwright Owen McCafferty to be staged at the new Metropolitan Arts Centre. Described as an emotive courtroom drama full of intrigue, bravery and human frailty, it’s guaranteed to be a sell-out, not least because it comes from the pen of Belfast-born and bred McCafferty.
September 8, BBC Titanic Proms: The songs and music of Northern Ireland and Belfast will be celebrated with a massive concert in the city’s Titanic Quarter.

FIRST CLASS FARE
Conor McLelland and his wife Bernie, who own and run the award-winning Rayanne House guesthouse and private dining restaurant (www.rayannehouse.com) in Holywood, just outside Belfast, have recreated the last menu served to first class passengers on the Titanic.
The nine-course menu (originally 13), which is available for private parties at £69 per person, makes for mouthwatering reading. It comprises canapes a L’Amiral; cream of barley soup with Bushmills whiskey and cream; asparagus and watercress salad with champagne-saffron vinaigrette served with roast squab (baby pigeon); poached salmon with mousseline sauce garnished with cucumber and fresh dill; rose water and mint sorbet; pan-seared fillet mignon topped with foie gras and truffle drizzled with a cognac, Madeira and red wine reduction served with potatoes Anna, creamed carrots and zucchini Farci; spiced peaches in Chartreuse jelly and French vanilla ice cream; cheese and fruit; coffee and petit fours.
Rayanne House, the former home of the Smith family, has its very own link with the Titanic — a print by JW Carey depicting the liner steaming down Belfast Lough on April 2, 1912, at the start of her maiden voyage, includes the house and hangs on the wall opposite reception.


FOOD SPEED AHEAD: Titanic menu at Rayanne House
CROWNING GLORY: Belfast's best-known bar, the Crown
A BELFAST JEWEL
The Crown Liquor Saloon (www.crownbar.com) in Great Victoria Street, opposite the Europa Hotel, is the best-known, most ornate and most photographed pub in Belfast, a gas-lit Victorian gin palace that’s on every visitor’s list of must-sees whether they drink or not. Step up to the red granite bar and you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with film or TV stars who don’t get a second glance from the regulars, so used are they to famous faces dropping by (Brad Pitt, Bill Murray, Michael J Fox and Ruby Wax are among the big names who’ve recently enjoyed a pint there). The Crown’s connection with the big screen stretches back to Carol Reed’s gritty 1947 movie Odd Man Out in which it featured as a location. When the cameras stopped rolling it was a hangout for James Mason and his fellow cast members.
Owned and preserved by the National Trust, The Crown — a Grade A listed building where the men who built Titanic enjoyed a pint — was established in 1849, although it was previously the Railway Tavern. The remarkable original interior is the work of Italian craftsmen who were brought to Belfast in the 1880s to fit out several new Catholic churches and who were persuaded to decorate their favourite watering hole after hours.
On the business side of the counter, barmen Michael Cosgrove and Jim McCann are a brilliant double act who keep customers entertained with the wittiest line in banter. Jim once convinced an American tourist that Michael, who was flashing a new gold tooth, was changing his name to Clint “in honour of his favourite spaghetti western — the one with cash in the title”. “You mean A Fistful Of Dollars?” asked the visitor. “Naw — A Mouthful Of Money!” said Jim.


SIGN OF THE TIMES: Tickets for Titanic
Belfast are like gold dust
OTHER 2012 EVENTS IN NORTHERN IRELAND
May 3 to 13, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (Belfast): From the most humble of beginnings 12 years ago when he had to beg, steal and borrow to put a programme together, festival founder and director Sean Kelly has turned this annual event into a winner. If ever there was an unpretentious arts festival that catered to the man in the street, this is it. I remember having a pint with Sean in Lavery’s pub in Belfast in the run-up to the first CQAF, and he was a nervous wreck, but he believed in what he was doing. His faith has paid off — next year’s festival will be his 13th. I hope he’s not superstitious. See www.cqaf.com
June 21, Peace One Day Concert: The venue is Ebrigton, County Derry, and Massive Attack are one of the headline acts in an event marking the opening of the London 2012 Festival of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. See www.peaceoneday.org for updates on the line-up.
June 30, Land Of Giants: The Titanic Slipway will be the site of the biggest outdoor arts event ever staged in Northern Ireland, with spectacular fireworks and more than 500 acrobats, aerial dancers and musicians performing before an audience of 20,000. This small but fiercely proud country will be punching far above its weight when it celebrates the iconic giants from its history — the legendary Finn McCool, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, the Giant’s Causeway, the Samson and Goliath cranes and, of course, Titanic itself. See www.landofgiants.info
June 30 to July 8, Clipper Round the World Yacht Race & Maritime Festival: Derry, the 2013 European City of Culture, will host the mother of all parties when it celebrates the arrival of the yacht Derry-Londonderry and the other competitors on the homecoming leg from Nova Scotia. See www.derrycity.gov.uk/clipper
September, Giants Causeway Visitor Centre Opening: It’s a World Heritage Site, and rightly so, and the new interpretative centre will be inaugurated in a blaze of glory. See www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giantscauseway
October 19 to November 3, 50th Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queens: This packed programme of domestic and international music, dance, opera, visual arts, theatre, literature and film attracts performers, exhibitors, speakers and visitors from around the world. See www.belfastfestival.com
˜For more information on Belfast’s Titanic centenary celebrations and details of accommodation and holidays in Northern Ireland see www.discovernorthernireland.com and www.belfastcitycouncil.gov.uk/events
˜Cobh, which was called Queenstown until 1922, has its own programme of centenary events (www.titanic100.ie) and a renowned heritage centre (www.cobhheritage.com) with a permanent Titanic exhibition. Visitors to the centre can also learn about mass emigration — 2.5 million people left Ireland from here between 1848 and 1950. See www.titanic.ie to book a historic walking tour, and www.titanicexperiencecobh.ie for details of a new interactive visitor attraction due to open in the original White Star Line offices in January.
˜The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, just outside Belfast, is home to a £1 million exhibition, TITANICa: The Experience (www.nmni.com/titanic), which features more than 500 original Titanic artefacts.
˜Titanic Stories is a fabulous website jam-packed with information, interviews and videos on everything to do with Titanic and Belfast. It’s so fascinating that you’ll have to set your alarm or you’ll lose all track of time and miss appointments. Do yourself a favour and visit www.the-titanic.com