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Northern Ireland, Belfast and The Titanic Experience

Titanic Museum Belfast

The Unsinkable and the Unthinkable

“Certainly there was no sailor who ever sailed salt water but who smiled – and still smiles – at the idea of the unsinkable ship” –  Charles Lightoller (Surviving Officer) in ‘Titanic and Other Ships’

The Titanic Museum and Experience has been built on the site of the previous Harland and Wolff workshops  right in front of the slipways that were built for the construction of the Titanic and the sister ship Olympic.  This area which has become the Titanic Quarter was previously called Queen’s Island but twenty years ago it was a no hope area of rotting buildings, dereliction and silted up docks and the transformation is truly remarkable.

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Inside the building was equally as impressive as the exterior and after collecting our pre booked tickets (10% saving) we made our way through to the exhibition which started with a history of nineteenth century boom town Belfast before taking us to the top floor for a shipyard ride with various displays of the construction process and then descending through various galleries that dealt with the launch, the fitting out, the maiden voyage, the passengers and the sinking.

The exhibition has a good mix of exhibits, interactive displays, full size reconstructions and plenty of information and facts.  My favourite was the story of the riveters who worked in a five man team and were expected to fix six hundred white hot metal rivets in a day.  One man heated it in a furnace before throwing it to a second man called the catcher who collected it in a bucket before passing it to the three man finishing team who hammered it into place.  All of those jobs sound dangerous to me but I imagine the catchers to be the most so.

Titanic Belfast

By the time that we left the final gallery about the search for the ship we were all happy to declare this to be among the best experience museums that we had ever visited and what good value at only £12.50 and I would certainly be happy to recommend anyone to visit this place.

There are many theories about the reason for the sinking.  The Captain has been blamed for being reckless, the White Star Board for trying to set a speed record despite the danger but currently the most popular is the rivets.  Apparently those used at the bow and the stern were made of iron rather than steel and contained high levels of impurities.  They only had a 5 mm tolerance and as a consequence of the collision they shattered and popped their heads and the steel plates of the hull undid like a giant zipper.

From the very day that she was designed she was almost doomed…this (the use of iron rivets) was the Achilles heel of the Titanic.” – Paul Louden-Brown, White Star Line Archivist.

Steering the Titanic

So, everyone knows that the Titanic sank but as we came to the end of the visit I began to think about what if it hadn’t?  To begin with the three millionaire U.S. businessmen who died that night, John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim and Isidor Strauss might have gone on to be even more successful and who knows what they might have achieved.  Thomas Andrews, the designer of the ship might have built something even bigger and better and Captain Edward Smith could have carried on crashing into other ships.

For sure I wouldn’t have met the American visitor who was looking at a list of the victims and comparing pictures with a faded photograph that she was holding.  She told me that it was her great uncle who was one who drowned that night.

Titanic (1)

Just maybe someone on board emigrating to the New World might have gone on to be the U.S. President and this isn’t as unlikely as it sounds because thirteen of forty four Presidents (30%) claim ancestral heritage from Ulster (Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S Grant, Chester Alan Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton).

We certainly wouldn’t have had that awful film ‘Titanic’ with Leonardo DiCaprio and we would never have had to endure Celine Dion singing ‘My heart will go on’.  As a point of interest there have been twenty-two films that are directly or indirectly based on the story of the Titanic and if you want my opinion (you are going to get it anyway)  the best of all was ‘A Night to Remember’ made in 1958 and starring Kenneth More playing Second Officer Charles Lightholler (see quote above).

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Before leaving the exhibition we had a good value Titanic themed lunch in the ground floor restaurant and then after visiting the slipway overshadowed by Samson and Goliath in the Harland and Wolff shipyard which are claimed to be the two largest free standing cranes in the World and have become a canary yellow symbol of the city.

With warbling Celine Dion ringing in our ears we retraced our steps now back towards the hotel and found the thirty minutes of time that we needed to visit the St George’s indoor market which happened to be a craft fair today before making our way back to the hotel to rendezvous with a taxi and a driver guide who was going to take us on a completely different sort of experience – a tour of the politically troubled areas of West Belfast.

Titanic Experience Belfast

Northern Ireland, Belfast and the Titanic Quarter

Titanic Experience Belfast

Building and Sinking of the Titanic…

“I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel.  Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.” – Captain Edward Smith

“You could actually walk miles along the decks and passages covering different ground all the time.  I was thoroughly familiar with pretty well every type of ship afloat but it took me 14 days before I could, with confidence, find my way from one part of that ship to another.”  – Charles Lightoller, Titanic Officer.

Everyone knows the story of the RMS Titanic.  When it was launched in 1912 it was the largest ship ever built.  It was the biggest thing ever built that moved. It weighed sixty thousand tonnes and its two thousand one inch thick steel hull plates were held together with three million rivets.  It was proudly proclaimed as the safest ship ever built.

It might have been considered unsinkable but on its maiden voyage the unthinkable happened and it sunk after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic and Captain Edward Smith was obviously absolutely hopeless at making accurate maritime predictions.

Edward Smith

He may not also have been much of a sailor either.  In January 1889 approaching New York on her final White Star sailing, he managed to run RMS Republic aground.  In 1890 he ran the White Star RMS Coptic aground in Rio De Janeiro and in 1909 he ran another White Star liner, the RMS Adriatic, aground also in New York.

In 1911 as Captain of the White Star ship RMS Olympic he nearly crushed a tug in New York harbour and on the only voyage of the Titanic there was a near collision in Southampton with a steamer  which by strange coincidence just happened to be called the New York.

To be fair collisions in the Atlantic Ocean and in the sea ports were quite common because as the cruise author John Maxtone-Graham wrote, “There were many more close calls on the western ocean than passengers ever heard about”.  This was the case because the Atlantic Ocean was significantly busier than it is today.  Cruise fans today well might tell you that it is the only way to travel, but in the first half of the twentieth century if you were travelling to the United States, it was.

Given his unfortunate record of running into things and damaging company property it might seem odd therefore that White Star Line trusted Captain Smith with the biggest ship ever to take to the seas.  It may also not have escaped reader’s notice that most of these incidents involve New York in one way or another and that was exactly where the Titanic was heading.  Even a raging sceptic would have to admit that these were bad omens.

Anyway, what was a disaster for the White Star Line, the Harland and Wolff shipyard and the one thousand five hundred people who died that night, every cloud has a silver lining and the new Titanic quarter in Belfast is a runaway success story as the city continues to regenerate itself and become a serious tourist destination.

It was cool this morning but the sun was shining as we left the hotel and made our way to the banks of the River Lagan.  This is another area that has been seriously improved.  Twenty years ago this was by all accounts a desperately unsightly area with vast mud banks that were unattractive, smelly and dirty but massive investment has funded the construction of waterside embankments and a new weir controls the levels of the water in the river to keep it permanently full and attractive.

Belfast Beacon Of Hope

On the way we passed by the Beacon of Hope Statue and then Belfast’s Big Fish which commemorates the Lagan regeneration project and then we crossed the river and made our way to the museum.  From the outside this is a magnificent structure designed in such a way that captures perfectly the spirit of the shipyards, ships, the sea, ice and the White Star Line’s logo.

This wasn’t the first time that I had visited a museum about a ship that sank on its first time at sea because in 2004 I visited the  Scheepvaartmuseum or Maritime Museum in Amsterdam which has a full sized replica of the three masted ‘Amsterdam’, a ship of the Dutch East India Company, which in its maiden voyage sank in a storm in the English Channel in winter of 1749.

Actually, it isn’t that unusual for ships to go down on their maiden voyage and Wikipedia lists dozens of them it is just that the story of the Titanic has caught the imagination of the World and after one hundred years shows no sign of running out of steam.

Titanic Experience Belfast

 

Northern Ireland, A Walking Tour of Belfast

Victoria Square Shopping Centre Belfast

Must See places in Belfast…

“Belfast is a city which, while not forgetting its past, is living comfortably with its present and looking forward to its future.” – James Nesbitt

We started our walking tour at the restored Victorian St George’s indoor Market and as soon as we went through the doors I knew that I had been there before.  In 2002 I attended an Environmental Health conference in Belfast and one evening there was live entertainment and a lot of drinking in this place.

It looked quite different today laid out with market stalls selling all sorts of food and traditional produce.  We would have liked to have stayed and looked around but Saturday it seems is early closing and all of the stall holders were in a rush to pack up and get off home or down to the pub.  The information board at the door told us that it was open again tomorrow so we were obliged to postpone our visit for twenty-four hours or so.

From the Victorian Market we made our way to the modern Victoria Square shopping centre which is much like any other UK shopping centre and sent the same sort of shivers down my spine that I get in Grimsby or Nottingham but happily we weren’t there for shopping we were there to find the steel observation tower set under a glass dome with good views across all of the city and we climbed the spiral staircase to the to the top platform for a 360° panorama of Belfast.

I might have mentioned before that I don’t really like shopping centres and arcades but this one impressed me.  Not because of the merchandise but simply because it exists. Twenty years ago Belfast city centre was a soulless place with army patrols and check and search points but now it is a vibrant and colourful city centre with a healthy beating heart and shops and department stores that would never have considered locating here during the times of trouble and violence.

Getting away from the centre proved a little difficult because shops have tractor beams that draw women inside and we had to stop regularly as Kim and Pauline were unable to resist the shoes and the sparkly things in the shop windows.  I am completely unable to understand the need to shop but here it was even more confusing.  We were in the UK and these shops were exactly the same shops that you can see in any UK town or city so where was the need I wondered to go inside and touch things.  And that is another peculiarity of shopping, women need to touch things even if they have no intention of buying them.  I raised this point and asked for an explanation but all got was a ‘you wouldn’t understand’ sort of look in response.  Too right I wouldn’t!

Queen Victoria Birmingham UK

A feature of cities is that they give different areas quaint touristy names and now we made our way to the Cathedral Quarter, so named for no other reason than this is where the Cathedral is.  We stepped inside but there was an admission charge of £5 so put off by this we just stayed in the entrance area and looked at the interior from a distance.  This might sound a bit mean but I am always reluctant to pay to visit an Anglican Cathedral on account of the fact that they are always disappointingly dull.

Now somewhere called the Cathedral Quarter sounds as though it should be rather well worth visiting but all in all we found it a bit of a let down and then I found this on Wikipedia:

“The Cathedral Quarter is a developing area of the city. While it has considerable good attractions it is also true that its designation as a cultural quarter may easily lead to an apprehension of a busy and significantly developed cultural area, which may bring some disappointment to visitors.”

Turning back now to the City centre we did stray into one rather lively street with a courtyard of entertaining murals and a street of lively and colourful pubs;  It looked like a street that was trying to become a sort of Temple Bar (Dublin) but it has to be said that it still has some way to go.

As we walked it began to get rather cloudy and soon there were spots of rain.  Kim and Pauline used this as an excuse to shelter in a shop, Richard went looking for a guide book and I decided to wander back to the hotel.  The weather changes quickly in Ireland however and I hadn’t gone very far when the clouds broke and the sun was poking its smiley face through again.

This conveniently coincided with my arrival at the Belfast City Hall in Donegall Square.  This is without doubt the finest building in Belfast commissioned in 1888 after Queen Victoria awarded Belfast city status and as a mark of gratitude her statue stands proudly outside the main entrance.

There were no flags flying.  In 2012, the City Council voted to limit the days that the Union Flag flies from City Hall to no more than eighteen designated days. Since 1906, the flag had been flown every day of the year. The move was backed by the Council’s Irish nationalist Councillors but was opposed by the unionist Councillors.  On the night of the vote, unionist and loyalist protesters tried to storm City Hall and they held protests throughout Northern Ireland.

Later we met in the bar for a Guinness and a debate about where to eat.  We took the word of a helpful young barman who recommended an Italian restaurant called the Cheeky Cherub which personally I didn’t think that sounded all that promising but we went there anyway and after a first class meal we all agreed that we were glad that we took that advice.

Next day we were going to see the Titanic Exhibition.

Belfast City Hall

Ireland, County Clare and The Burren

The Burren County Clare Ireland

“The Burren is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him.”

Later in the morning we were leaving Galway to drive south through the Burren and towards our next scheduled overnight stop at the town of Ennistymon in the heart of Father Ted* country but as this wasn’t an especially long journey we were in no particular rush to leave and so after breakfast we wandered off into the city again to visit the Saturday morning street market.

I have explained before (several times) that I am not a fan of shopping but I don’t mind the local market especially one that sells regional produce and handmade crafts so it was quite enjoyable strolling around in the sunshine, tasting local food and debating whether or not to buy a pointless souvenir or a piece of traditional Irish woollen clothing that we would possibly never ever wear again once back home.  So we didn’t.

As midday approached we turned our backs on Galway, threw a few more coins into the collection boxes of the street entertainers and returned to the hotel to check out and load the car.

The car! OMG the car!

Over the last forty-eight hours I had forgotten about the warning lights on the dashboard and they flashed up again like casino gaming machine as soon as I turned on the ignition and although they are normally supposed to go out after a couple of seconds or so they took it in turn to blink and flash and most worrying of all there was that pesky engine management warning light again.  The engine sounded sweet enough however and there were no plumes of black smoke or sounds of exploding metal so we carried on and resolved to ring the car hire company later on.

Dunguaire Castle Kinvara Ireland

We drove inland along the north shore of Galway Bay, then south before turning west along the south shore and into a region called the Burren, an area that makes it into every top ten list of natural wonders in Ireland.  A vast barren area of bare limestone rock  and at first sight very little else and the first coastal village that we arrived at was Kinvara where we stopped at the outskirts at the site of the restored Dunguaire Castle.

According to legend if you stand at the front gate and ask a question you will have an answer to by the end of the day.  While Richard and Pauline went to the top of the battlements and Kim made a circuit of the castle looking for photo opportunities I made my way to the front gate and asked my question, ‘is the car going to blow up?’

Out of all of us Richard was the most excited about the Burren and plotted a route to take us into the interior to see rock formations formed by criss-crossing cracks known as ‘grikes’ and isolated boulders called ‘clints’ which between them have formed deep crevices with layers of fossils and the home to a multitude of alpine plants and he wandered off and poked his camera lens into these interesting places.  Kim and Pauline were obviously much less impressed by this rocky wilderness and returned to the car after only a very quick and discourteous glance but I took a look around and tried to get a better understanding of the bleakness of the place and if I had been a geologist or a botanist then I am certain that I would have got very excited, but I’m not and I didn’t.

With Richard outvoted three to one we now returned to the coast and to the village of Ballyvaughan which seemed unexpectedly busy.

The reason was that there was a cycle event taking place today called the tour de Burren and nearly two thousand cyclists were taking part and were all due at the finishing line in Ballyvaughan later this afternoon.  We stopped for a short while for a Guinness and a sandwich and then we made our way out of the village and headed west before it was completely taken over by women in inappropriately tight lycra, men with shaved alien legs, those weird helmets that cyclists wear and competitors and spectators alike in garish bright colours that for driving safety reasons required the use of double sunglasses.

Driving became increasingly difficult now because all of the cyclists were coming towards us in the opposite direction and it needed total concentration not to knock any of them off their bike and spoil everyone’s afternoon.  There was only one near miss when a cyclist choose to make a risky overtaking manoeuvre at the top of a ridge just as we were approaching from the other side.  I demonstrated the reactions of a formula one racing driver and braked hard to avoid a collision and caught the look of sheer panic on his face as he swerved back to his own side of the road just in time but I am quite certain that it was the sort of incident that would require him to disinfect his saddle later on!

The scenery was spectacular now as the road swept around the coast in a roller-coaster sort of way and we stopped several times to admire the views and walk across the grikes and even Kim and Pauline were finding it interesting now.  And so were some of the cyclists because many of them were also pulling up and taking photographs in a leisurely sort of way that convinced me that this wasn’t a cycle race in the same way that the Tour de France’ is a cycle race because I am sure that Chris Frome doesn’t stop to take pictures whilst cycling through the Pyrenees.

At Black Head Point the road turned an abrupt 90° and we headed south with the Atlantic Ocean to our right.  The road all along this coast is called the Wild Atlantic Way but there was absolutely nothing wild about it today and with blue skies, sunshine and no wind the sea could hardly find the energy to make a slight ripple let alone a crashing wave and the water caressed the shoreline in a gentle peaceful sort of way.

With the dashboard still lit up like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise we carried on now towards the Cliffs of Moher.

The Burren map Ireland

* As my UK readership only makes up about 20% of all my page views an explanation is required:

I am going to mention Father Ted again in the next couple of posts so I need to tell you that this was a cult UK situation comedy about three priests living in Ireland which generally pokes fun at Ireland and its stereotypes.  It probably doesn’t travel too well.  There was once talk of a US version but the project was abandoned before it started.

Ireland Father Ted Tour Craggy Island Parochial House