Travel tales

Titanic Belfast: Stories from a shipwreck

The Titanic museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland

What is it about the story of RMS Titanic that has captured so many people’s imaginations? Just over a hundred years ago, the famous liner hit an iceberg and sank off the coast of Newfoundland. But where other maritime disasters have been and gone, lost in the passing of history, this one still lives on (and on… in the words of Celine Dion). After events in 2012 to mark the hundred-year anniversary of her sinking, Titanic is still making news now, as an eccentric Australian billionaire plans to build Titanic II. A complete replica of the original, it’s due to set sail from Southampton to New York in 2018, hopefully more successfully this time. Over 40,000 people have applied for a place on the maiden voyage. So why does Titanic still hold such a fascination for people – me included – after so long? I set out to find out more at Titanic Belfast.

Titanic Belfast reflected in the water of the harbour

Titanic Belfast reflected in the still waters of Belfast Harbour

As the city that built her, Belfast likes to think of itself as the home of Titanic. In the Queen’s Island area of Belfast Harbour, the engineering company Harland and Wolff built some of the world’s biggest liners in the mid-19th century. Titanic and her sister ship the Olympic were the biggest yet, so huge that special slipways and docks had to be built and over 10,000 people employed. But with the decline in heavy industry and shipbuilding in the twentieth century, the harbour buildings were abandoned and fell into disrepair.

Harland and Wolff still owned the land until 2001 when they sold it off for redevelopment and Belfast’s new ‘Titanic Quarter’ was born. Since then apartments, a university campus and science park have been built. But the city also wanted to commemorate its part in the building of the Titanic, so plans were drawn up for a museum to show off both the story of Titanic and Belfast’s maritime history.

The Titanic museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Prows of a ship or an iceberg – what do you think it looks like?

Titanic Belfast opened at the end of March 2012, just in time for the hundredth anniversary of Titanic’s launch. It’s an impressive looking place, with the aluminium shards on the outside glinting in the sunlight. The same height as Titanic herself, the design is supposed to look either like ships’ prows pointing in each direction or a giant iceberg, depending on who you believe. It quickly became the most popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland, and sees almost a million visitors each year.

It’s split into nine different galleries that take you from the start of construction in ‘Boomtown Belfast’ right through to the discovery of the wreck in the 1980s. There aren’t many artefacts from the ship itself, mainly as so many of them have been sold off to collectors around the world for huge prices. The focus is much more on the stories of the people who built, worked and sailed on Titanic.

The Titanic museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland

The entrance to Titanic Belfast

First you learn about how she was made with a ride that gives you some idea of the scale of construction. It takes you through a simulated shipyard where sound and video show the conditions the shipbuilders had to work in. Then you can look out of the windows to see the place where it all actually took place. The next galleries take you through the fit-out stage – with recreations of the interiors from basic third class to luxurious first – going on to the launch and maiden voyage over to Southampton.

This is where I have my own little family link to Titanic. My grandmother worked for a doctor who was due to work on the ship, but ended up missing his train and Titanic had already left once he got to the port – a very lucky escape. The next gallery takes you through the events of 14–15 April 1912, from the first iceberg sighting through to the rescue of survivors by the Carpathia. It’s all told through the personal stories of survivors and its the little details they remember that really bring the disaster to life.

The Titanic museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Clever windows that alternate between the view outside back then and today

From there you go through the aftermath. The sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ shocked people across the world, but it did have a positive effect in improving maritime safety standards. Nobody wanted to see a repeat of the tragedy. The 1500-person death toll made the sinking of the Titanic the worst peacetime shipping disaster in history. It got a huge amount of press and there were books and plays written about it and commemorative memorabilia made. But a few years later Britain was launched into the First World War and soon the death toll from the Titanic became an everyday occurrence in the trenches.

She became just another disaster in a decade of loss. So much so that when her sister ship the Olympic came up for sale after working as a WWI troopship and then an ocean liner in the 1920s and 30s, she finally ended up being scrapped when no-one wanted to buy her. Hard to imagine now.

The Titanic museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland

A compass tiled into the entrance hall at Titanic Belfast

But in the 1950s, the book A Night to Remember was published and made into a film, which rekindled interest in the Titanic. And from there it just grew and grew. The hunt for the wreckage was a fascinating story of its own, with weird schemes like winching her to the surface using huge magnets or floating her up with balloons. The wreck was finally discovered in 1985 and the exhibition shows amazing footage shot on the sea bed, where you can see details like plates lying in the debris field. Then in 1997 the film Titanic came out and a whole new generation of people became interested in the story.

There are museums and monuments to the disaster across the world. So why does it capture our imagination? I think it’s because the story of Titanic can be read in so many different ways. There’s the man versus nature story, where human ingenuity loses out against the forces of nature. Or the Greek-style tragedy, where riches and excess meet with a tragic fate. Or there’s the smaller human stories from that day – of the cowardly rich gentleman, the heroic captain, the band that played on as the ship went down. Titanic has so many memorable stories from one disastrous night.

The Titanic museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Visiting Titanic Belfast

The details

Titanic Belfast is open from 10am–5pm from October to March, from 9am–6pm in May and September or 9am–7pm in June, July and August. Tickets cost £17 for adults, £12.50 (£14.50 at weekends) for students and over 60s or £7.25 for children 5–16. You can also have afternoon tea next to a replica of the famous staircase from the film on Sundays for £24.

Pin it

Titanic Belfast: Stories from a shipwreck – On the Luce

Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like

20 Comments

  • Reply
    Michelle
    April 15, 2013 at 10:42 am

    Your photos look great!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 18, 2013 at 1:32 am

      Thanks, you’d never tell that it was the middle of December with such a beautiful day!

  • Reply
    jpilkington09
    April 15, 2013 at 10:58 am

    Really want to go to Belfast – currently trying to organise a trip, think this post will help rally enthusiasm!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 18, 2013 at 1:33 am

      It was a great city for a weekend break, plenty to see and some good bars and restaurants.

  • Reply
    restlessjo
    April 15, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    Does sound fascinating, Lucy. Nice to hear about your family connection. There must have been a few of these lucky escapes.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 18, 2013 at 1:40 am

      There were lots of stories of strange chances and coincidences that meant people missed the ship or survived against the odds, it’s a fascinating place.

  • Reply
    The Travelbunny
    April 15, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    Fascinating narrative and excellent shots. I think the structure resembles ships prows and I love the the way the light reflects off the surface. Am even more excited about visiting next month having read this!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 18, 2013 at 1:41 am

      The building’s really striking isn’t it? The area’s really starting to develop and it’ll be interesting to go back in a couple of years as there are lots of plans still being developed. Have a great trip next month.

  • Reply
    Patricia Cuní
    April 16, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Loving the buildin and the whole story… the Titanic tragedy is so fascinating that I’m sure anything they do will be a huge success… Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 18, 2013 at 1:42 am

      It is such a fascinating story isn’t it? I was at the Titanic Exhibition at the Luxor in Las Vegas last week too and it was packed, the story really has got interest all around the world.

  • Reply
    kieran
    April 17, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Hi Lucy –

    Living in Northern Ireland -just read your article just wanted to say loved it!

    Your blog radiates -pictures are great.

    Hmm… if only i knew you were in town, I should have got you to take me a few such gorgeous photos for http://www.uniquely-northern-ireland.com!!! my own little new born-very demanding! You are welcome to drop in -all feedback welcome!

    Anyways will be able to pop in now I have found you to check on your adventures..

    Kind Regards

    Kieran

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 18, 2013 at 1:38 am

      Hi Keiran, you’re very welcome to use any of my photos if you can just put a link to my site – I’ve got a few more at http://www.flickr.com/photos/lucydodsworth/sets/72157632371900471/ – just drop me an email if there’s any you’d like to use. Good luck with your new site, I’ve not been to any other parts of Northern Ireland yet so will be checking it out for some future travel inspiration!

  • Reply
    Jonny Blair (@jonnyblair)
    May 10, 2013 at 11:46 am

    Lucy – great site and so glad you enjoyed visiting Belfast and wrote about it – I’ve seen your piece on Uniquely Northern Ireland dot com – nice work and safe travels. (yet another Northern Irelander) Jonny

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 13, 2013 at 10:38 am

      Hi Jonny, thanks, I had a great time in Belfast – it was a bit of a flying visit so must go back and see a bit more of Northern Ireland sometime!

  • Reply
    On the Luce in 2012 | On the Luce
    June 10, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    […] in Jordan my last trip of 2012 was a bit chillier – sampling the Christmas markets and the new Titanic Exhibition in […]

  • Reply
    livingawelllivedlife
    December 11, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    I am in love with Titanic.It is very interesting how the story keeps resurfacing and new generations fall in love with the tragedy. Did you visit the museum? I had no clue they were building a new ship. I wonder how much it would cost and how hard it will be to get on? Maybe not the first trip but the 4th?
    I was…in 4th grade i think when the movie came out and I fell in love with Leonardo and Kate’s characters. It is a happy memory of my child hood and how much reading and researching I did on the event, but it is such a tragic memory in history.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 16, 2014 at 10:20 am

      Titanic is definitely one of those stories that has captured people’s imaginations. The museum was fascinating and really brought the story to life. The new ship would be fantastic, as far as I can tell it’s still in progress but such a huge job I’m sure it’ll be years to go!

  • Reply
    Madhu
    April 14, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    Fascinating post Lucy! It is the movie ‘Raise the Titanic’ that ignited my interest and I have been hooked ever since. Love your photos, especially of the compass tiled into the entrance.

  • Reply
    Russell
    June 26, 2017 at 4:04 pm

    A really interesting read, Lucy. Titanic Belfast has been on our To Travel List for some time and I am looking forward to the day when we finally get to visit. I enjoyed reading about the layout of the museum and what to expect, as a keen student of history I am looking forward to exploring the 9 galleries. Great post

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 26, 2017 at 6:35 pm

      Thanks Russell, it was such an interesting place and really brought the stories to life – hope you get to go visit sometime soon!

    Leave a Reply