Titanic Town

It is fast approaching the centenary of the Titanic's departure from Belfast and its all too sudden sinking, and it is all over the TV, with ITV's dreadful costume drama (dubbed "Drownton Abbey" by one friend, and "Upstairs Drownstairs" by another) and the BBC doing a documentary about it with Len Goodman from Strictly Come Dancing... Is he going to do a quickstep on Queens Island? 
And everywhere you look in Belfast at the moment some Titanic-themed event is taking place, with yesterday's dedication of the "Titanica" statue, outside the Titanic Signature Building, which is due to be opened on Saturday coming (and which I am looking forward to visiting as soon as possible thereafter), and today's ludicrous renaming of "Bridge End Halt" as "Titanic Quarter" even though it's a good mile walk from the heart of that particular developers' dream... Although it remains the only direct link between the Titanic Quarter development and the erstwhile hinterland of the shipyard, inner East Belfast.
I've said before that I'm slightly ambivalent about the direction of the Titanic Quarter development, as well as the wholesale adoption of the Titanic as the brand for Belfast... would you really want to invest in a development named after a ship that sank? But I suppose it is a brand with global recognition thanks in no small part to Kate Winslet et al, hence the nod to her in the Titanica statue, no doubt...
But today another set of statues were unveiled in Pitt Park off the Newtownards Road in inner East Belfast that speak of another angle on the Titanic in particular and the shipyard in general... One that is not so romantic... but just as tragic... It's entitled "The Yardmen" and was created by my friend Ross Wilson, and it celebrates the thousands of flat-capped men who, generation after generation, used to cross the bridge to go into the Harland and Wolff Shipyard, to build the Titanic and many other ships that contributed to Britannia ruling the waves. I'm told that there is a tiny "Titanic" on each of the statues, symbolic of the greatness that lies within even the most ordinary of people.
It was a hard life. Few of those men grew wealthy on what they earned, and not too many of them grew particularly old... In the early years of the yard it was a deadly place to work... among the death-toll of the Titanic, they rarely mention the 14 men who died in the making of it (though if truth be told, that was a relatively low number in comparison with other ships). In more recent years it's dangers were more subtle, inhaled as asbestos fibres that have embedded themselves in the lungs of a generation of yardmen, who finish their days gasping for breath.
It was also a place of profound prejudice. There was some controversy a few weeks ago when Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence hosted a discussion where it was suggested that the Titanic was essentially a Protestant ship... "Only in Belfast could you suggest that a ship had a religion." said one listener... But it is true... From its beginning to end the shipyard was predominantly protestant... and at times of tension catholics were made to feel even less welcome. Sam Thompson's "Over the Bridge" captured the reality of that half a century ago.
I don't particularly want to celebrate that, any more than I want to celebrate the awful working conditions... but the men who worked there should not be forgotten... nor the community from which they came... predominantly the back to back streets off the Newtownards Road. We need to remember what was, celebrate what was good in it and learn from what wasn't so that we can build something better... Not some gentrified "harbour village communities" which the yardmen, or many of their descendents could never afford, built on the site of the old yard... but real, organic communities of all faiths and social classes, where people have access to good quality housing and productive, life-affirming employment. 
It may be a pipe dream in this era of public sector cutbacks, post-industrial Britain and generational unemployment but that is what I dream of... and if branding Belfast as "Titanic Town" will make that dream any more likely, then great... But let's not laud a lump of metal that is languishing at the bottom of the Atlantic. It's the people that are important... Not bronze statues, but flesh and blood human beings... the people who built the boat... the people who died on it... and the people who still live in the city she hailed from...



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