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Current news and events about the RMS Titanic, including exhibitions, artefacts, films and documentaries and historical information about the Titanic

Belfast wagers on Titanic's unsinkable appeal

By Jill Lawless

The Titanic departs Southampton, England, on her maiden Atlantic Ocean voyage to New York in 1912.

To most of the world, the name Titanic means tragedy, spiced with romance, sacrifice and luxury. But in Belfast, where it was built, the doomed ship is a triumph of industry, enterprise and engineering.

The city hopes the rest of the world will soon see it that way, too.

Northern Ireland's capital, scarred by 30 years of Catholic-Protestant violence and mired in Europe's economic doldrums, is gambling on a gleaming new Titanic tourist attraction to bring it fame beyond the Troubles - and a renewed sense of civic pride.

Tying the city's name to a sinking ship is not, apparently, a problem.

"What happened to the Titanic was a disaster," said Tim Husbands, chief executive of Titanic Belfast, a £100 million (NZ$193.5m) visitor attraction due to open on March 31, in advance of the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking. "But the ship wasn't."

Colin Cobb, a Titanic expert who leads walking tours of the docks and slipways where the great ship was built a century ago, puts it even more succinctly: "Tragedy plus time equals tourism."

Celebrating the ship and its builders is the aim of Titanic Belfast, a shiny new "visitor experience" - don't call it a museum - whose four prow-like wings jut jauntily skyward beside the River Lagan on the site of the former Harland and Wolff shipyard.

Titanic, then the world's largest, most luxurious ocean liner, left this spot on April 2, 1912, eight days before its maiden voyage from England to New York.

The vessel touted as "practically unsinkable" hit an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland and sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912. More than 1500 of the 2200 people on board died.

Belfast mourned - and then, for decades, kept quiet about its link to the tragedy.

"When she sank, it was a huge shock for the city," said Susie Millar, whose great-grandfather Thomas Millar was a deck engineer who perished aboard the Titanic.

"For years and years it wasn't discussed. But now, coming up to the 100th anniversary, we've rediscovered that pride in the ship and we're sharing those stories again."

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Titanic launch 100th anniversary marked by Belfast flare

A single flare was fired above the city's docklands to signify the exact moment - 12.13pm - 100 years ago when the ill-fated liner rolled down the slipway and touched the water for the first time.

All boats in the area around the Harland and Wolff shipyards, where the pride of the White Star fleet was built, then sounded their horns.

In 1911, thousands of cheering well-wishers gathered at the same place to celebrate the historic moment.

A century on, the mood was again one of celebration at the event on the Queen's Island slipway which focused more on the ship's construction than its fate.

After the flare was fired, crowds clapped for exactly 62 seconds - the length of time it took for the liner to roll down the slipway in 1911.

The Titanic sank on her maiden transatlantic voyage 11 months after her launch, with the loss of more than 1,500 lives, when she struck an iceberg.

Among the invited guests at the commemoration were schoolchildren and representatives from the four other cities and towns directly connected to the Titanic story - Cherbourg in France, Cobh (formerly Queenstown) in Co Cork, Liverpool and Southampton.

The Harlandic and Queen's Victoria male voice choirs sang a number of hymns during the half-hour service close to the almost-complete £100 million Titanic visitors centre, which is set to open ahead of next year's centenary of the liner's sinking in 1912.

Earlier, a major new exhibition on the Titanic opened at the nearby Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, boasting some artefacts recovered from the liner that have never been put on public display before.

Descendants of many of the men who helped build the ship, some of whom sailed on the first voyage and died in the maritime disaster, attended the service.

Lord Mayor of Belfast, councillor Niall O Donnghaile, said Belfast's role in the Titanic story had been overlooked in the past.

"The Titanic story is probably one of the most fascinating, amazing, poignant, thought-provoking and absorbing tales from the last century, if not the last millennium," he said.

"For too long, Belfast's part in the Titanic story, and the role of the people of Belfast in bringing Titanic to life, has been neglected.

"Over the past few years, the city that gave birth to the ship, and many others, has finally and rightfully acknowledged her part in the tale, and today we are proud to celebrate the achievement, epitomised by this historic moment, and educate the world about our city's role in the Titanic story."