Lost Ocean Liner a Symbol of a Bygone Age

Titanic under construction

Titanic under construction at Harland and Wolf

Celine Dion is quoted as being sick of listening to her own rendition of My Heart Will Go On. Some have expressed similar sentiments about events commemorating the famous ocean liner inextricably linked with the song. The anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking has passed amid a flurry of events marking Belfast’s connection with her and some aren’t sure why there is so much fascination with this particular ship. 

Indeed there are many vessels worthy of the James Cameron film treatment. Titanic’s older sister ship Olympic had a twenty-four year career. She was damaged in a collision with a cruiser in the English Channel in 1911 and had to go back to Belfast for repairs, a job that delayed the completion of Titanic. In 1915 she was painted in zebra-like camouflage and used as a troop transport during the First World War in which she struck and sank a German submarine.

Titanic’s younger and larger sister, Britannic, was intended as an ocean liner but was requisitioned for the war effort in 1915 and used as a hospital ship. One year later a mine off the coast of Greece ended her short career with the loss of thirty lives.

Other maritime stories worthy of recognition off the coast of Ireland include that of the Lusitania, the ill-fated Cunard liner that was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1915 with the loss of 1,198 lives in controversial circumstances. This was a 9/11 moment that led to America entering the First World War.

In 1952 all of Ireland was gripped by the drama unfolding off the coast of Cork when the nondescript freighter Flying Enterprise was struck by a freak wave shifting its cargo to one side, and listed on the brink of capsizing for several days while her heroic captain, Kurt Carlsen, evacuated all passengers and crew and remained on board risking his life to single-handedly keep the stricken vessel operational in the hope that she could be towed into port. The people of Ireland crowded around their wireless sets every night listening to the latest news, and many prayers were said up and down the country for Carlsen’s safety. He refused repeated calls to abandon ship, but eventually the conditions would not allow a tow line to be attached and he was forced to abandon and let the ship sink after a thirteen day battle to save her.

These are all great stories in their own right, but the fascination with Titanic is justified, and not just for the well-known circumstances of this particular voyage. The great ocean liners of the early twentieth century were very different from modern ships. They were bigger than modern car ferries, designed for long hauls across oceans. Unlike modern cruise ships which are floating party hotels, these coal-powered leviathans were the Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s of their day. In the pre jet age, the great liners of the Cunard and White Star lines were the workhorses of transoceanic transport. Their job was to get people from A to B in opulence for those who could afford it and in the bare minimum comfort for anyone else.

Four times longer than today’s jumbo jets, they were the largest man-made moving objects up to that point. They were designed without the aid of computers, built without space age materials, and powered without today’s efficient diesel engines, yet were still faster than some modern cruise ships.

Harland and Wolff produced some of the most famous vessels in the world and the sheer scale of the engineering effort is noteworthy. It is entirely appropriate that we recognize Belfast’s industrial heritage of which Titanic was the most famous part.

The company was far from an angel though. Catholic workers were expelled numerous times in the nineteenth century and again in the civil unrest that preceded partition. To be a catholic working there in later years was to keep one’s head down. That kind of sectarian culture was later eroded by foreign ownership and anti-discrimination laws.

And yet with all the negatives in the shipyard’s history, for better or worse the engineering marvels that once crossed the oceans were a major contribution that Belfast made to the world.

Demand for ships has not gone away despite the ocean liner becoming obsolete in the jet age. Cruising, which was once like air travel in being the preserve of the wealthy, has become more affordable and has increased the demand for cruise ships. The standard containerization of freight has fueled an explosion in international trade leading to higher demand for ever larger container ships which now weigh in at over 150,000 tonnes. However Harlands have failed to remain competitive in the market for constructing these vessels which are now made principally in Korea, China and Japan.

To adapt, the yard has shifted its focus onto structural engineering and offshore renewable energy. Derry’s Foyle Bridge and Dublin’s refurbished Ha’penny Bridge are examples of the yard’s work.

Engineering skills remain in use, but much of the magic has gone. The giant gantry cranes, Samson and Goliath, are today only in action occasionally and are rightly preserved as historic monuments. This symbolizes the state of industry in Belfast where the past seems bigger than the present, and tourists come to admire what the city used to produce. While it is good that we exploit our history and give visitors something to look at, there is something sad about the absence of majestic ships taking shape above the skyline on Belfast Lough. The Titanic Belfast building with its evocative architecture and stunning waterfront location is the closest we are ever likely to get to it. We might as well celebrate it.

Published in Irish Herald newspaper, May 2012.