Remembering the Titanic

By Pamela Wade

The loss of the liner still fascinates 100 years on

A hundred years on, what happened on the night of April 14, 1912, still has the power to fascinate and move people everywhere. The sinking of the "unsinkable" liner Titanic with the loss of almost 1500 lives from all sectors of society, and many nations, has been recounted through the decades in books and movies, most notably James Cameron's 1997 Oscar-blitzer Titanic. Around the world, many places with only a tenuous connection with the ship offer Titanic exhibitions, but a select few truly are Titanic cities.

Belfast, Northern Ireland
They know about building ships in Belfast: 1742 have gone from sheet steel to seaworthy since the Harland &Wolff shipyard was established in 1859, but the Titanic towers above them all. For two years, 3000 men hammered in three million rivets, the city ringing to the sound as the ship rose on the skyline. It was launched as much upon the city's pride as on the waters of Belfast Lough, and its loss was felt keenly. "The Titanic was all right when it left here," the locals like to say. The immense Samson and Goliath cranes still stand, and there are bus, boat and on foot tours of the shipyard, the dry dock and other places recalling the glory days of building the world's biggest liner.

The latest and greatest attraction is Titanic Belfast, opened at the end of March in a spectacular $187million building of gleaming zinc that recalls the soaring prow of the ship. Inside is the definitive Titanic story told in nine galleries, covering the conception, construction, launch, doomed maiden voyage and sinking of the ship, as well as its re-discovery 4km down on the floor of the Atlantic ocean 74 years later.

Dark rides and special-effect animations recreate the ship, inside and out, and stories of the passengers and crew are presented in fascinating and authentic detail, including voice testimonies from survivors.

Cobh, Ireland
Also known as Queenstown, this pretty little town beside Cork Harbour in south-east Ireland was the last port of call for the Titanic before it set sail across the Atlantic. In the Heritage Centre inside the old railway station from where mail was loaded on board, there's a well-presented display that also covers the sinking of the Lusitania just outside the harbour in 1915, and the flood of migration that began with the Great Famine of 1846-48. Outside is a statue of Annie Moore, the first emigrant to be processed at New York's Ellis Island in 1892, who was followed by thousands, including many of the third-class passengers on the Titanic, full of hope for a new life in America.

One of them was local boy Jeremiah Burke, 19, who scribbled a pencilled note and sealed it in a bottle, throwing it overboard as the ship sailed. The following summer, a postman found it on a beach in the harbour and delivered it to Jeremiah's mother, still mourning the loss of her son: "Goodbye all," it read. It's now one of the Titanic exhibits at the Heritage Centre, which covers the building of the ship, the embarkation of passengers in Cobh, the lucky desertion there of homesick stoker John Coffey, who stowed away in a shore-bound tender, and life on board. Cobh also offers the Titanic Trail, an entertaining walking tour led by local historians around sites in the town, including the pier where the ship's tenders tied up, and a Titanic memorial. The formerWhite Star office building is now occupied by a new exhibition focusing on the 123 local passengers who boarded the Titanic at Cobh.

Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
From Halifax, a lively town on a harbour tucked into the rocky coast of eastern Canada, mariners went to sea on a grim task on April 17, 1912. The cable ship MacKay-Bennett, carrying a minister, undertaker, pine coffins and a load of ice, set out to recover the bodies after the steamer Carpathia had picked up all 712 survivors from the 2200 aboard. Already, 116 were beyond identification and were buried at sea; 306 bodies were returned to port, where teams of undertakers and horse-drawn hearses took the coffins and canvas bags-class discrimination persisted even in death-to a temporary morgue at the curling rink. Some were claimed by family, but 150 victims remain in the town's three cemeteries.

Plain black granite headstones, some without names, stand in rows, their care still funded by the White Star company, since taken over by its rival Cunard. (Coincidentally, founder Samuel Cunard was born in Halifax.) In Fairview Cemetery, one plinth is frequently piled with toys: "Erected to the memory of an unknown child" it reads, representing the 53 children who died. Another always has flowers on it: "J. Dawson, Died April 15th 1912"-in fact this was James, a boiler-room hand, not Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack, but the fans don't care. They also follow the Titanic trail around the town past buildings and sites connected with the ship and the movie and to look at the many artefacts on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Titanic Sister Cities
Liverpool is where the Titanic dream began: registered there, the ship bore the city's name on its stern, and there are exhibitions in the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Southampton was headquarters of the White Star Line and the first port of call for the Titanic. Four out of five crew members came from the city: of the 549 Southampton victims of the disaster, only one was a passenger. There is a Titanic Trail, and exhibitions in the Maritime Museum and SeaCity Museum. At Cherbourg, France, 281 passengers boarded and a new Titanic exhibition has opened at La Cité de la Mer museum. NewYork, the final destination, never saw the Titanic dock, although the 712 survivors arrived there on the Carpathia on April 18. There's a memorial lighthouse at South Street Seaport in Manhattan. Outside the sister cities, one of the best collections is the travelling Titanic: The Exhibition, currently in Barcelona.

- Herald on Sunday

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