BELFAST, Northern Ireland – There’s always been more than a hint of contradiction in this often conflicted Northern Ireland capital.
It’s the former home of the beloved children’s author, C.S. Lewis. It’s where four U.S. Presidents can trace their heritage, and the site of the only professional ice hockey team in all of Ireland, the Belfast Giants.
But it didn’t exactly have the best or the safest reputation in the world, thanks to the bombs and burnings, an all too regular occurrence during “The Troubles”, as the locals like to call the religious-sectarian violence which raged for nearly three decades.
Thankfully, the days of bombs and burnings are a thing of the past, and this scenic corner of the world is doing their best to attract free-spending American tourists.
One of the boldest and most ambitious steps was recently launched this spring when local governments authorized funding for a multi-million dollar maritime museum to commemorate the Belfast shipyard which built the massive Titanic ocean liner and hundreds of other sea going titans.
By 2012, the 100th year anniversary of Titanic’s birth and subsequent sinking on its maiden voyage, a huge museum, with its centerpiece being the last remaining vessel ever built for the famed White Star line, will stand alongside the other unmistakable signs of progress among the Belfast Ship Channel.
Building a huge maritime temple to a ship which sank on its first passenger trip might seem another contradiction in this city full of them, but the Northern Irish forward thinking businesspeople recognize the undying marketing pull of the Titanic name. After decades of shame and hidden or often harsh feelings, now they want to spotlight the area’s contributions to the 20th Century’s most enduring tragedy.
Besides, as the locals are more than happy to tell you in the many pubs which still line the channel area, ‘there was nothing wrong with that boat when it left here, until the English got their hands on it.’
Despite constantly changing expert theories, the most recent scientist evidence may prove them right.
Today, Belfast city leaders have categorized nearly a dozen stops in the area as part of the Titanic Quarter, which can be accessed through a self-guided tour. It also includes a privately run Titanic Boat Tour, which takes visitors along the channel to see the birthplace of the monster ship and many other related vessels.
At one time, the Belfast Ship Yards employed 30,000 local shipbuilders and craftsmen, who built hundreds of ships of all sizes, making it one of the largest ship manufacturing cities in the world.
But most famously, the yard was known for building the Titanic and its sister vessels, the Olympic and the Britannic, which came to life over a four-year period starting in 1908-09. When the Titanic slid quietly down the slipway, it could be seen for miles around, and as it began its first trial voyage from Belfast to Southampton, England, the proud locals could have never imagined the horror which was only weeks away.
Tour organizers will tell you that when word of the ship’s sinking in the North Atlantic reached Belfast, men and women literally stopped in the streets of the city and broke down crying.
In the months and years that were to come, much blame was placed on the Belfast shipyard. Ultimately, the Harland and Wolff shipyard went out of business, a victim of the changing times and the Titanic sized dark cloud.
More than 3,000 men lost their lives working in the shipyards during that early 20th Century period, and they will also be memorialized in the new Maritime Museum.
Hopefully, with “The Troubles” behind them, and a new era of entrepreneurial spirits ahead of them, Belfast’s best days lie ahead.
After viewing the Maritime Museum visitors might want to take advantage of the world class championship golf courses that are near Belfast, as well as the numerous cosmopolitan bars and restaurants, along with the massive Odyssey Complex which brings some of the world’s best entertainers to Belfast.
By looking at the area’s shipbuilding past, city leaders are hoping to shine an ever brightening spotlight on Belfast’s future.
Art Stricklin is a Dallas-area travel writer and a contributor to the Travel section.