In the early 1900s, Belfast’s shipyards were lauded across the seas for spawning the world’s greatest ships. They launched the Titanic, drove a city’s economy for a century, and survived two world wars. The docks have witnessed the long and bloody battle for Irish independence from the United Kingdom, as well as the Troubles, a 30-year maelstrom of violence between Catholic “Republicans,” who sought Ireland’s reunification, and Protestant “Loyalists,” who wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the U.K. Then, in 2003, the shipyards birthed their last vessel.
Now, a hundred years since Northern Ireland was born, this industrial site has been transformed into one of the country’s main tourism draws, home to the Titanic Belfast attraction and several historic maritime sites. The slipways where the Titanic was built are now a top outdoor performance venue in Belfast, which has just been awarded UNESCO City of Music status in recognition of its dynamic live music scene. The yards also grace the big screen in Kenneth Branagh’s new movie, Belfast, inspired by his childhood here during the turbulent 1960s.
While the shipyards were once the most prolific in the world, they are no longer the city’s nucleus. Yet they still loom as a site encapsulating the tragedies, complexities, and ambition of Northern Ireland’s capital, a city that’s been fought over, both locally and internationally, for generations. A deep affection for Belfast courses through its population of 340,000, and the shipyards don’t just illuminate the city’s heritage but now also help to bind and inspire its communities.
In the second half of the 19th century, Belfast’s shipyards steered the city through the greatest disaster in Irish history. Between 1845 and 1851, Ireland was ravaged by the Great Famine, when potato blight, combined with brutal British policies, resulted in the deaths of one million people and caused another two million to flee the country.
People poured into Belfast in search of work. Its population quadrupled between 1851 and 1901 and many found jobs in the shipyards. By the early 1900s, Harland and Wolff was the world’s number one shipbuilder, says Susie Millar, president of the Titanic Belfast Society, while rival Belfast company Workman and Clark ranked fifth.
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It was amid this prosperity that Harland and Wolff birthed the R.M.S. Titanic. The largest ship the world had seen, it carried more than 2,200 passengers and crew, about 1,500 of whom died when this goliath struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. This story is well known due to many dramatic retellings, including one of the highest-grossing movies in history, James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic. The calamity triggered two major inquiries into its causes, prompted media scapegoating of senior Titanic staff, and left this city in mourning.
Tides of change
In the decade after the Titanic sank, the shipyards became embroiled in complex political and social conflicts as Ireland aggressively pursued independence from the U.K. Underlying these tensions was Belfast’s longstanding sectarian divide, a regular flashpoint on the shipyards, says Sean Connolly, professor emeritus of Irish history at Queen’s University Belfast.
Combined with the stresses of a post-World War I economic slump, which slashed employment, Belfast’s waterfront became increasingly volatile. That simmering unrest erupted in 1920. Thousands of mostly Catholic workers were expelled from the shipyards. “Resentment was exacerbated by claims Catholics had taken jobs in the shipyards while loyal Protestants were away fighting for king and country [in WWI],” Connolly says.
The shipyards’ fortunes waxed and waned after that. They rebounded thanks to WWII, then suffered another post-conflict slump, before recovering via cruise liner construction, and finally, in the 1960s, entering a steep and terminal decline due to the air travel boom.
After the last ship was built 18 years ago, urban planners pursued an ambitious redevelopment of the city waterfront. In 2012, for the centenary of the Titanic disaster, Belfast opened the Titanic Quarter.
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With Northern Ireland now accepting vaccinated tourists from many countries, visitors are flocking to this district. There they can explore the $135 million Titanic Belfast attraction; the refurbished S.S. Nomadic, which serviced the Titanic; and the Maritime Mile, a walking trail of marinas, museums, art trails, and historic shipping sites.
Easily the city’s biggest tourist draw, Titanic Belfast manages to reveal fresh aspects of the ship’s well-worn tale, despite having a policy of not displaying artifacts from the Titanic’s wreck, which was discovered in 1985 by American oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Robert Ballard.
The Maritime Mile begins alongside Queen’s Square in downtown Belfast before heading north on each side of the River Lagan. It is lined by sites that reveal the wider story of Belfast’s shipping history. Clarendon is the city’s oldest remaining dock. Sinclair Seamen’s Church displays a trove of maritime artifacts. The Great Light was once Belfast’s largest lighthouse optic. The original dock and pump house of the Titanic are fully accessible. And the Belfast Harbour Heritage Room hosts the permanent exhibition “A Port That Built a City.”
The shipyards’ legacy
The Titanic Quarter is not without critics. The development prioritizes commercial interests over the respect due to this shipping tragedy, says William Neill, emeritus professor of spatial planning at the University of Aberdeen. “The Titanic signature building sucks in revenue from cruise ships and is a stand-alone cash cow for the developers,” he says. “The site is at the epicenter of a calamity which shook faith in modernity. It should have been respected as such. Developers rule in Belfast and superficial commercialization substitutes for any real memory work.”
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Despite being so deeply linked to tragedy and controversy, the shipyards are a celebrated part of Belfast’s identity, says Stephen Boyd, tourism professor at Northern Ireland’s Ulster University. They are even the subject of many murals in a city where those public artworks have tended to focus on the sectarian divide.
“It’s amazing how many people in Belfast have worked in the shipyards at one time, or who had ancestors who worked on the Titanic,” Boyd says. “That’s such a big part of the identity there in East Belfast, in particular; many walls in that area that used to have political murals on them now instead have Titanic or shipyard paintings.”
This represents a significant attempt to heal longstanding rifts in the Belfast community, says historian Kyle Hughes of Ulster University. “Since the Northern Ireland peace process [in 1998], there’s been an effort to try to update murals from pure sectarian and paramilitary murals to things that reflect positive aspects of local culture,” he says. The shipyards’ legacy is “something so many people really feel good about.”
Triumphs and tensions, then, persist on the Belfast waterfront. That shouldn’t be a surprise given the highs and lows of its extraordinary history, which in many ways mirror the tale of the city itself. More than 160 years since these shipyards first rose above Belfast, they continue to project a complex shadow across this memorable city.
Ronan O’Connell is an Irish-Australian journalist and photographer based in the west of Ireland. You can find him on Twitter.