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Belfast pulls out all the stops for Titanic anniversary

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RMS Titanic at the dock in Belfast - 1911 
Did you know this is the 100th anniversary of the maiden voyage and sinking of the Titanic? If you have recently been to Belfast, where the Titanic was built, there is no question that you would know because Belfast is going all out to mark the Titanic anniversary.

This is in stark contrast to how Belfast has dealt with its Titanic legacy for most of the past century. In fact, unless you knew before-hand where the Titanic was built, you would have been hard-pressed to find any sign at all that the great liner spent most of its short life in Belfast. The ship's sinking, the collapse of the ship-building industry generally in Belfast and, of course, 'the troubles' all took their toll. Memory of the Titanic wasn't so much swept under the carpet as allowed to rust and decay, much like the shipyard where it was built.

Even after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, when the atmosphere of Belfast was transformed and the city sought to bill itself as a tourist destination, the Titanic was ignored. This was despite the fact that James Cameron had boosted the Titanic from fading tragic memory into a cultural icon, a romantic tragedy thanks to his massively successful movie.
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That's all changed now. This year Belfast will host a two week Titanic festival starting March 31. The city is going all out to celebrate its links to the most famous passenger ship in history. The itinerary includes: talks, exhibitions, plays, concerts, and Titanic the Musical, which I'd never heard of, but which won five Tony awards back in 1997. And, of course, there is Belfast's new Titanic Visitor Experience, which opens on March 31 and which I'm hoping to get into sometime in April.

There literally is 'something for everyone.' In fact, so wide-ranging are the various events that they're a bit jarring. On Saturday, April 14 there is a concert in St Anne's Cathedral titled "Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic." To me the Titanic is so far in the past that anything with the word 'requiem' in the title seems a bit of a stretch. Yet, maybe there are others - children and grandchildren of those who built it, perhaps? - who feel the Titanic's loss still and for whom a requiem is appropriate. It doesn't suit me, but it's not inappropriate either.

Titanic Building, which will host the 
Titanic Visitor Experience
Photo – Feb 2011
However, the night before the St Anne's concert there is going to be an outdoor MTV concert at the place where the Titanic was built. I don't know about this one. I know it'll appeal to the younger generation (presumably - no line-up of acts is available yet), but 1,500 people did die on the Titanic and despite the fact it was a long time ago an MTV concert is knocking on the door of tackiness. There is definitely a disconnect between the series of commemorative events on offer and this MTV show, which will have to feel like a celebration more than a commemoration if it's to be a success.

What's ironic is that as James Cameron giveth he may also taketh away. Cameron's latest Titanic project is to get to the bottom (sorry about that) of what happened to the liner. On April 8 Cameron will present a two-hour special on the National Geographic Channel that Cameron describes as the "ultimate cold-case investigation into the tragedy."

Cameron will have a team of experts going through all the latest evidence as to what happened to the Titanic, what went wrong and, threateningly, who is to blame. I say threateningly because unless Cameron has unearthed something completely different he will be most likely talking about the quality of the metal used to make the rivets.

If that is Cameron's conclusion then the effect of his program will be to place the blame squarely on the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the Titanic was built. Although it's always been muted, the attitude of Belfast has long been that the Titanic's sinking wasn't 'their fault,' summed up by the usual refrain of "She was fine when she left here." The truth is she may not have been fine when she left Belfast and it may stick in the craw of those whose fathers and grandfathers built the Titanic. They may hope this is the last they hear of the Titanic's Belfast connection.

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