‘THE TROUBLES’ AND TITANIC TRAGEDY IN BELFAST
I’m with a group of tourists in Belfast, and our coach driver, Sean, is distinctly uneasy. He is a Dubliner and we are driving through Belfast in Northern Ireland, a city with a dark, tormented past and it makes him acutely uncomfortable. Not surprising, for when he was a young lad visiting Belfast in the late 70’s, the savage uprisings of the Sinn Fein and the murderous clashes between Catholics and Protestants terrified him senseless. A Catholic himself, he was profoundly relieved to cross the border and return home to Dublin.
Referred to by the Irish as “The Troubles” the violence that erupted was fuelled by the Irish Republican Army and the Sinn Fein whose members were predominantly Catholic. Their fight for the establishment of a united and independent Ireland was bitterly opposed by the Unionists – mainly Protestants with fierce loyalties to the Crown. The horrific carnage and bloodshed was stemmed in part by the Good Friday cease fire agreement in 1998, and in 2007, the IRA, after over 35 years of rebellion, finally laid down their arms and ammunition.
“But,” says Sean in his Irish brogue, “ t’will take several generations to overcome ter bitterness and losses suffert on bot sides. Jus’ ‘bercause o’ religion!” The truth of that becomes evident as we drive a section of the city where, to my astonishment, a high wall topped with strands of wire physically separates the Protestant area from that of the Catholics. The sprawling City Cemetery, too, has a low wall that divides the two religious groups. In death, as in life, there seems to be no reconciliation.
It is a bleak morning, and dark grey clouds and a thin drizzle envelops Belfast, giving it a surly, forbidding face. We drive by posters and graffiti that adorn the city’s walls, and pause by a poster of Bobby Sands, a Catholic and an ardent Republican, and the first man to die of starvation in prison as part of a hunger strike – a martyr to the separatist cause.
* * * * * * * *
If there is only one thing a visitor chooses to see in Belfast, let it be the engrossing Titanic Museum. I am mesmerized by the exhibits on five floors encompassing film, interactive media, simulated rides through the doomed vessel, clips of interviews with some of the survivors, historical photographs (including that of the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”) and much more.
The first level takes me back to Belfast in 1909: a film portrays street scenes of a booming city with a thriving linen industry. This leads to an interactive section of the Hartland and Wolfe shipyard and the construction plans of the mighty Titanic.
The Museum is built on the site of the shipyard itself, and when I ascend to the third level, a film clip documents the launching of the ship in May 1911, and a window to one side overlooks the actual slipway as it is today.
The fourth floor has a 360 degree computer generated tour of the Titanic from the bridge to the engine room. It unfolds before a mesmerized audience. The fifth floor gallery has a replica of the ship’s deck, while the sixth floor portrays that fateful day, April 14th 1912. An arresting “iceberg” sculpture has 400 lifejackets on a wall, across which flicker images of the sinking ship.
Celine Dion’s poignant song, “My Heart Will Go On” is the background music to a tour of the replicated Titanic with it’s iconic staircase, cabins and ballroom, some original china, and a copy of the ship’s last luncheon menu. I browse through stills from film and documentaries portraying the many stories and legends surrounding the doomed ship.
My visit concludes with the Discovery Theatre’s footage of the rusting wreck of the Titanic as it sits today two and a half miles below the surface of the ocean. The camera travels across the foredeck and over the gaping hole where the grand staircase once saw gaily attired women and their consorts descend to the magnificent ballroom; a light globe still hangs suspended from a ceiling, stained glass windows glow in the light of the diver’s headlight and a woman’s elegant evening shoe lies abandoned on the floor.
Sean drives us out of Belfast the following morning and as we cross into the Republic of Ireland, he heaves a sigh of relief and mutters, ‘Back home agin...tanks be to Gott!”
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IF YOU GO:
• For more information on the Titanic Museum visit: http://titanicbelfast.com/ I recommend the “Walk Through” film on the home page.
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
1. Peace Wall
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