According to legend, the hymn “Nearer My God To Thee” was played by musicians on the Titanic as it sank. It is probably true. And impossible (even thru a TV screen) not to get a little bit emotional to hear it fittingly played at the end of the Commemoration at Belfast City Hall yesterday.
The Commemoration, featuring the unveiling of a memorial listing all the Titanic dead (from several nations) was choreographed, overblown but dignified. We have actually matured enough to accept that the current Mayor of Belfast (Niall Ó Donnghaille), who led the commemoration and unveiled the memorial is a member of Sinn Féin.
But he was simply wrong when he tried to explain away the airbrushing of the Titanic out of History as “quietly set aside, the memory too painful, the loss too personal”. He was reading from the “new” script…..the “new” narrative. Likewise the assertion of another speaker that “the Titanic has finally come home to Belfast” is simply nonsense.
The Titanic was a ship, built in Belfast. It sank. Belfast built a lot of ships. Others sank. The Titanic was merely an icon of the late Edwardian Era…swept away as much by the First World War as an iceberg in the North Atlantic. I was born forty years after the Titanic sank. I dont recall anybody really getting emotional about it, even my Uncle Robbie who had worked on it……or so he said. My Uncle Robbie said a lot of things. But its not my feeling that people were too upset to talk about it.
This Titanic Exhibition Centre and Memorial is all …….new. Alien even to Belfast. A new narrative for a new age.
Previously the Titanic had been a Belfast “joke”. Tourist T-shirts “Titanic Swim Team 1912”, “Titanic built in Belfast……it was ok when it left here”, “Titanic built by the Irish…….sailed by the English”. Hilarious a few years ago……..but not so funny now. You can buy the 2012 “dignified” memorabalia in the same stores that you could buy the “funny” T-shirts. A sale is a sale after all.
Perhaps a public announcement would help” The citizens of Belfast are politely requested NOT to mention to Tourists that until this year we all thought the Titanic was a bit of a joke”.
If the Titanic is not a joke, then it is a metaphor……….we talk about re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic to demonstrate that we need to do serious things to deal with serious situations and somewhere up in my loft there is a Harry Chapin album “The Dance Band on the Titanic” indicating that we are providing amusement and diversion for each other while heading straight into an iceberg.
Of course it does not help that I am from West Belfast, not East Belfast. According to unionists the work force in the shipyard was unbalanced in favour of unionists/Protestants because it was situated in East Belfast. A reasonable enough point if it wasnt for the fact that the shipyard was (obviously) ON the river and central (and that would not explain the 100% Protestant work force at Sirocco in 100% Catholic Short Strand or the unbalanced work force in Mackies on the “Catholic” part of the Springfield Road.
Because…….whisper it softly in 2012…….Catholics in West Belfast detested the shipyard and all it stood for. The Titanic Experience will give schoolchildren the interactive experience of working in Belfast shipyards in early 20th century. Alas the authenicity will not extend to throwing Catholic schoolchildren into the River Lagan and pelting them with rivets, nuts and bolts etc. “Belfast Shipyard Confetti”………hmmm no T-shirts available I suppose. Thus when shipbuilding in Belfast went into decline in the 1970s and 1980s and local TV News told us about massive lay-offs at “The Yard”, nobody who I knew ever expressed any concern………….other than “serves them right”, “the Pope will be annoyed about that” and “sore hearts on the Falls Road about that”. See in Belfast……..we do Irony.
The thing is………most of all this Titanic crap is NOT about 1912. It is actually about 2012. New Century. New Narrative. Dont rock the boat (no pun intended).
And for God’s sake dont point out that the plaque with 1,500 names of Titanic victims “from all over the world” is just a few metres away from where Reverend Joseph Parker used to stand.
The name “Joseph Parker” will be familiar to may of us who passed the City Hall in the mid 1970s. He was the Presbyterian minister whose son Stephen (14) was blown to pieces by an IRA bomb on “Bloody Friday” in 1972. Grief-stricken he used to stand at City Hall adding (almost daily) a small cross for each victim at an impromptu memorial. Some ridiculed him because he made no distinction about victims. Britis, Irish, innocent, gunman killed or bomber blown up by his own bomb was all the same to him. Eventually he left Belfast. Heartbroken.
But……hey……..some of us think that a memorial listing 3,800 victims of our Troubles 1966 to 1998 would be appropriate. Possibly more appropriate than the Titanic Memorial. But then we cannot even agree on the number. We cannot agree on the definition of “victim” and we cannot agree on who caused the deaths….nor agree on apportioning blame.
Which is why that iceberg in the Atlantivc Ocean in 1912 is so easy to blame.