One hundred years to the very minute that the Titanic was launched, a crowd gathered to remember the great ship where she was built.
Representatives of the families of those who died when the Titanic sank joined relatives of those who built her, councillors from Liverpool – which also boasts a strong connection with the ship – playwrights and schoolchildren among the crowd who cheered for 62 seconds to mark the time it took for the Titanic to first slide down the slipway into Belfast Lough.
When the Titanic’s hull – the outer shell of the liner whose interior was yet to be finished – was launched on May 31, 1911, the entire city celebrated and thousands gathered at Queen’s Island to watch what was then the world’s largest vessel slip into the water,
Yesterday, Rev Chris Bennett, chaplain of Belfast’s Titanic Quarter development, conducted proceedings on the site of the former Harland & Wolff docklands.
The Harlandic Male Voice Choir and the Queen’s Island Choir performed two songs including Eternal Father, Strong to Save, which was traditionally sung at the launch of ships.
A minute’s silence was then held to remember the 1,517 people who lost their lives on the ship’s disastrous maiden voyage.
The passenger liner sank after hitting an iceberg en route from Southampton to New York in April 1912.
But Mr Bennett said he was keen to ensure that celebration was the dominant mood at the event, pointing out that before it sank the Titanic was a beautiful feat of engineering.
He told those gathered: “If we had been here 100 years ago we would have been surrounded by gantries.
“The enormous ship would have covered the whole area where crowds were standing and further from the under-construction new Titanic museum to the water’s edge.
“What happened to it was a tragedy but before that it was a beautiful ship.”
Mr Bennett described how the crowds would have stared in wonderment at how this “great mound of steel made out of everything that does not float” could rest on water.
Mr Bennett also read out a witness’s account of the moment the Titanic took to the sea on May 31, 1911 at 12.13pm, and like yesterday a flare was released.
While the flare this century did not herald a huge ship being launched, the crowd cheered for the 62 seconds that it took for the ship to slide from its dry dock into Belfast Lough.
He said: “For the last 100 years Titanic has often not been mentioned. It’s been our shame, our secret.
“We’ve almost had a hundred-year moment of silence, so really we’re trying to rediscover the pride today.”
As the crowd, including schoolchildren from the local area dressed up in period costume, cheered, ships from the River Lagan sounded their horns in unison.
Belfast lord mayor Niall O’Donnghaile was on one of the small boats that gathered in the exact patch of water where the Titanic first hit the waves.
“The Titanic story is probably one of the most fascinating, amazing, poignant, thought-provoking and absorbing tales from the last century, if not the last millennium,” he said.
“For too long, Belfast’s part in the Titanic story, and the role of the people of Belfast in bringing Titanic to life, has been neglected.
“Over the past few years, the city that gave birth to the ship, and many others, has finally and rightfully acknowledged her part in the tale, and now we are proud to celebrate the achievement, epitomised by this historic moment, and educate the world about our city’s role in the Titanic story.”
As well as proud locals, there were scores of international visitors including journalists from all of the world such as the United States and China eager to capture our celebrations to bring back to their countries.
Local councillors from the other Titanic ports – Cherbourg, Cobh, Liverpool and Southampton – were also present to represent their cities’ part in the tale.
Liverpool councillor Wendy Simon said her city feels strong links to Belfast, particularly through the Titanic connection.
“With Belfast, I feel an especially strong bond – not just because of Titanic, but because of the huge similarities between our cities,” she said.
“We face each other across the Irish Sea.
“We have an incredible shipbuilding heritage and maritime history. And, more recently, the incredible renaissance which has seen both Liverpool and Belfast re-emerge as great cultural destinations.
“In terms of our relationship with the Titanic, Liverpool was home for the White Star Line.
“Indeed, it was in the company’s head office in James Street, that the Titanic was planned and the maiden voyage organised.
“The vessel was registered and carried the name ‘Liverpool’ on her stern.
“We also know that more than 90 of the ship’s crew were from our city. So it is hugely important that we never forget the awful events of almost 100 years ago.”