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Belfast deserves no criticism for cashing in on its Titanic links

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Titanic Belfast - opened on March 31
Belfast is catching flak thanks to its Titanic Belfast Launch Festival. While I can understand some of the misgivings, I'm more than willing to cut Belfast some slack on this one.

Belfast man William Neill, now a Professor of Urban Planning at Aberdeen University in Scotland, was one of the more quoted critics in recent weeks. Neill worries that the memory of the Titanic is not being "treated with enough respect." Neill acknowledges Belfast's shipbuilding history and it's "unique" place in the Titanic story, but is concerned that the city is trying to cash in with Titanic "infotainment" with its new Titanic center.

While Hill may have a point, other critics went completely off the deep end with their narky comments. One columnist even compared the Titanic's sinking with Auschwitz and 9/11, saying that in "2101, it's unlikely the people of New York will want MTV staging a concert at Ground Zero."

Let's get this out of the way: there is no comparison between the Titanic and Auschwitz or 9/11. None.
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Now, to be honest I found the decision to have an MTV concert this coming Friday a little weird too. However, the people of Belfast are not 'celebrating' Titanic's sinking, let alone the 1500 dead, but rather the achievement of getting the Titanic Centre built. Maybe Belfast didn't get the tone of this coming weekend pitch-perfect, but so what?

The crux of the issue for the critics is that Belfast is trying to use its Titanic connection to earn some filthy lucre. For these people Titanic and her dead should be remembered mournfully without fanfare and certainly without the ringing of cash registers. I say 'hooey' to all that.

First of all, nobody can say Belfast was quick off the mark to market its Titanic connection. It's taken them 100 years. People have been making money off the tragic events of April 14-15, 1912 for decades, but only now is Belfast trying to join them. I wonder if these same people criticized James Cameron for his Titanic or even Walter Lord for A Night To Remember for the same reason? Those two and everyone else associated with those movies were, after all, cashing in on the same tragedy with their own "infotainment." In fact, those movies created the 'Titanic industry' we have today. I see no reason to fault Belfast for getting in on the act.

Also, what about the dead? Would they really be remembered more appropriately if there were no Titanic "infotainment?" We can compare the Titanic's dead to those of other shipping disasters from the same era. How many of the 1,012 dead are remembered from the 1914 Empress of Ireland disaster? How about the 1,021 who died when the General Slocum burned and sank in New York's East River? How many New Yorkers remember even one of those people? I daresay virtually none.

Yet all this week stories of the victims of the Titanic are being aired again. Why? Because of the fanfare and "infotainment." Without that only a few would care about Addergoole, Co. Mayo and even fewer would care about Patrick Dooley or Charles Melville Hays or even the musicians who played right up to the liner's last minute. If not for the 'infotainment' the stories of the lucky survivors would be just about forgotten now. There would be no Encyclopedia Titanica online. So spare me your tears because the choice is not between remembering with respect vs "infotainment," but between forgotten and infotainment.

Also, Belfast just deserves a break. The city is only now waking up from a long nightmare. Other than 'the Troubles' what do people know of Belfast? Nothing much really, but the Titanic is a cultural icon, the subject of successful movies, commemorated in many cities with monuments and museums. Yet Belfast's connection to the Titanic* is only rivaled by Southapmton's.

The Titanic is a tragedy, sure, but it is long in the past. There is virtually nobody alive today who remembers the Titanic or who lost a loved one on the Titanic. It was a tragedy on a par with other long forgotten maritime disasters of the era. It was far less a tragedy than the one that unfolded in Europe between 1914 and 1918. Indeed, the Titanic is less a tragedy than what Belfast endured during 'the Troubles.'

That the Titanic is remembered at all is thanks to the entertainment industry's capacity to turn a horrific but largely accidental event into a romantic tragedy. Belfast is - finally - connecting itself to the legend, the myth of the Titanic. It is not cashing in on anyone's grief.

* Let's just keep that whole rivets thing quiet, okay?

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