Dear God. Have we all lost our senses? I was at the launch of a novel by Downpatrick’s David Park on Friday night. In the course of a witty speech, the author said he’d like to apologise firstly to the people there, then to all future readers and especially to the people of Belfast: he hadn’t once in the book mentioned the word ‘Titanic’. The room instantly filled with laughter and applause. We’re getting it wall-to-wall, across the ceiling, over the floor and down our gullets, day after day. With the opening of this exhibition in the Titanic Building in the Titanic Quarter in East Belfast, dementia beckons.
Because what we’re being force-fed is not just the history of the ship but a carefully sanitized version of that history. True, Belfast can be proud that the city produced the single biggest moving object on earth a hundred years ago (NOT, please note, Northern Ireland - it didn’t exist when the ship was built). But there’s a big awkward fact: on its first time out the ship sank. Am I the only one finds something faintly ludicrous about boasting you built a ship that sank first time out? Strikes me as being like a surgeon who boasts about an operation in which his patient died.
The thing is, you’re not supposed to forget facts when you’re talking history. The facts in this case include another, even bigger and spikier fact: the Belfast shipyards where the Titanic was built were a by-word for sectarianism. In 1912, the year of the Titanic’s launch, over 6,000 Catholics were expelled from the shipyards and other industrial sites throughout Belfast. In 1960 the brave and talented Sam Thompson wrote a play ‘Over the Bridge’, exposing shipyard sectarianism, and the Belfast city fathers did all they could – unsuccessfully - to suppress it. Nothing, they figured, must be allowed to mar the myth of the shipyards. But history isn’t like that . We either tell what happened and how things were or we write propaganda.
The Titanic exhibition currently open to the public cost somewhere between £60 million and £90 million of public money. That’s your money and mine. I devoutly hope we get our money back through tourism, even if that tourism is generated by a half-true story of the time. If the hype on this morning’s Stephen Nolan Show is anything to go by, the place should be crowded. How many people will it take, over what period of time, to earn back that £60-£90 million? A good number and a good while, I would guess. Incidentally, I heard a man - on RTÉ radio, not BBC – say last week that the Titanic display in the Titanic building in the Titanic quarter contains not one single original artefact from the, um Titanic. Is he right? And if he is, do you care?