Over the summer, RealClearHistory Editor Samuel Chi embarked on a two-week tour of the British Isles and France. He filed a few dispatches via the transatlantic telegraph cable, which we just received now.
BELFAST, Northern Ireland - As the MS Caribbean Princess got tied up to the dock in the port of Belfast, a gleaming, glass and steel structure just across the ship channel came into view on the starboard side. It's a dream building that was completed just a year ago to commemorate the centennial of RMS Titanic. It also stands as a symbol of hope and progress - but most of all, rebirth.
Not that long ago, Belfast was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. During 'The Troubles' in the 1970s and '80s, bombings, assassinations and government crackdowns were a way of life in the hard-scrabble capital of Northern Ireland. The six predominately protestant Ulster counties opted not to join the new Irish Free State in 1920 and remained in the United Kingdom. There were sporadic conflicts between the republicans (those wishing to join Ireland) and loyalists (those wishing to remain in the UK) for the next half century, before an orgy of bloodshed erupted.
'The Troubles' finally came to a halt in the early 2000s after the Belfast Agreement in 1998. All told, over 3,500 people would lose their lives as part of the 50,000 casualties during the tumultuous three decades. In the past 10 years or so, there was finally sustained peace, and civic leaders went about rebuilding a once prosperous city that was the envy of the British Empire.
In the second half of the 19th Century, Belfast underwent a rapid transformation, becoming a boomtown while the rest of Ireland was ravaged by the Great Famine. People flocked into Belfast's new linen mills, whiskey distilleries and the burgeoning docks. As Belfast's population went from 87,000 in 1851 to 350,000 in 1901, it also became the world's biggest shipbuilding center.
The city's harbor commission had the foresight to dredge the River Lagan and redevelop the pleasure grounds of Queens Island into shipyards. Harland & Wolff would set up shop there and begin building the biggest ocean liners the world had ever seen. In 1909 workers started laying the keel for two enormous ships, side by side, under the monstrous Arrol Gantry - Titanic and Olympic.
While Titanic spent barely two weeks in the water before she met her untimely demise, Olympic had a 24-year career including a stint as a troop ship during World War I. In the slipways where the Arrol Gantry once stood is now a park commemorating the twin ships, with wooden benches laid out as the way they did on the deck of Titanic. At the foot of the park is the newly opened attraction - Titanic Belfast.
Titanic would've been drawfed by our ship, the MS Caribbean Princess (photoshoped to scale).
Opened March 31, 2012, to coincide with the centennial of its nameshake ship, Titanic Belfast is both a museum and a vision, of Belfast's past and future. The massive seven-story building tells the story of not just Titanic, but also the city itself. The exhibitions serve to weave the story of how Belfast emerged from a sleepy seaside hamlet to a martime powerhouse, as the birthplace to the greatest ships the world had seen at the turn of the 20th Century.
The exhibitions include not just images and old films, but also replicas and renderings of all areas of Titanic, including a ride that takes you from the top deck all the way to the boiler room as the ship was being built. In another interactive presentation, the visitors are whisked from the crew's living quarters in the bottom of the ship, through third-class accomodations, all the way up to the iconic grand staircase and the wheelhouse.
But Titanic Belfast is but one part - though a central one - of Belfast's rebirth. It serves to anchor a new development named Titanic Quarter, which consists of a 185-acre area of abandoned shipyards south of the ship channel and River Lagan. A short walk from downtown Belfast, the new development is home to Titanic Belfast, Titanic Studio (in which HBO's popular series 'Game of Thrones' was produced), and eventually also up to 28,000 residents.
The new Belfast seeks to move the city past a violent half century that included not only 'The Troubles,' but one of the most destructive air raids in the history of the United Kingdom. On the night of April 15, 1941, the Luftwaffe launched a massive air attack that sought to cripple Belfast's aircraft and shipbuilding facilities and, by being able to follow neutral Ireland's brightly lit coastlines all the way to Belfast, it was a devastating success. The 180 planes dropped 674 bombs and 76 mines that completely caught the city off guard, destroying much of its industries and killing 745 people. That, and other parts of Belfast's World War II history are captured in the small yet captivating Northern Ireland War Memorial on the ground floor of an office building right by St. Anne's Cathedral in downtown Belfast.
After Belfast, we finally bade farewell to Ireland, as the MS Caribbean Princess sailed toward the North Sea, heading for a destination where the greatest navy in the world once called home.