Titanic Boat tour in Belfast
Our second day in Belfast kicks off with a cruise. It’s not a Titanic sized cruise, the Mona’s a pretty little boat decorated in colourful bunting, but it is Titanic themed. Once branded the Lagan Boat cruises, the tours only really grabbed the public imagination when they were relaunched with a Titanic angle. Now they offer an education into life at the docks, an insight into C19th Belfast, a tour of Titanic sites, and seventy five minutes of pure Irish craic…
“She was alright leaving here!”
“Titanic – built by Irishmen, sunk by an Englishman, ” is a phrase rolled out with an Irish lilt, a wink and a smile on the Belfast City Boat Tour, otherwise known as ’The world’s only Titanic Boat tour.’ It goes with the phrase “she was alright leaving here,” that adorns their publicity.
The Lagan Boat Company has been taking tourists out onto the water for the last fourteen years. But what started as a casual trip running just once or twice a month is now a full time business. The company now runs three tours a day, seven days a week, and in 2012, the anniversary of the Titanic sinking, its’ crew is hoping for a ‘boom year.’
“We need the money. Captain Smith, who was in charge of the Titanic when she went down, was only paid £25 a week and our boss always says ‘Why should you get any more?’” jokes crewman Alan Gilfillan.
Belfast docklands are busy again
It’s not just this company that’s doing well. Once a global beacon of industry, the docklands of Belfast seem to be booming once again. Peace reigns in this city after many years of troubles. The significant anniversary of the famous ship and the imaginative festival that the city has put together to mark it are bringing in the tourists. And dockland investment is turning a bleak area of town into the grandly named and upwardly mobile Titanic Quarter. “It’s one of five quarters in the city,” explains Alan, “Well, this is Ireland.”
For almost a century this quarter was the heartbeat of the city. It was home to Harland and Wolff, the ship building company that at one stage employed over 35,000 people in Belfast. The company was a powerhouse, building and launching hundreds of boats from the city docks, and helping to make Belfast one of the most prosperous cities in the world. And now its heart has been restarted with the help of the multi million pound tourist attraction that we have come to Belfast to see.
But this being Belfast, they have a thing or two to say about the Titanic Belfast Visitor Attraction. “They built a £100m building with taxpayers money, and designed the corners of it to look like the bows of a ship. And while it is a lovely building, incorporating a century of Belfast history, we think it looks more like an iceberg.’” laughs Alan.
That’s not what the locals call it…
Locals have renamed the building ‘The Berg,’ but then giving expensive projects affectionate names has become a pastime around here. The most recent piece of public art to grace West Belfast, the £0.5m Rise, has been fondly rechristened ‘The Balls on the Falls’. Then there’s The Thanksgiving Statue, a £300k twenty metre high metal sculpture of a woman stretching a circle of light over the bay, standing proudly in a Square that’s not square, which has been renamed ‘Nuala with the Hula’ or ‘The Bell on the Ball’ or even ‘The Thing with the Ring’. Even national monuments don’t escape. The mighty Harland and Wolff cranes ‘Samson and Goliath’ were rechristened ‘Samson and Delilah,’ after one of them stood idle for many years.
It’s the bright yellow Harland and Wolff twin gantry cranes bookending the docks that give the city its character. “They are our Eiffel Tower, our Statue of Liberty and Leaning tower of Pisa and we’re proud of them,” says Alan. “To give you some context of the scale of them, the letters H and W are the size of a double decker bus. We like to think they stand for ‘Hello and Welcome to Belfast.’”
But this national historic monument is not the only thing the people of this city are proud of. Alan lists some of their innovations; ejector seats, milk of magnesia, the recipe for chocolate, green underwater technology -“Irish windfarms don’t need wind!” He says for a population of under two million, the people of Northern Ireland have always punched above their weight. “We are bigger than we are.” It’s perhaps not surprising then, that they came up with Titanic. Although let me remind you that they didn’t sink it.
Another kind of holy water
“Now this is a little bit of holy water,” says Alan as we round the bay and see the legendary slipway. “It’s the place where Titanic kissed the water 100 years ago.” On the boat we fall silent, although around us a wall of noise continues. All day long technicians have been sound-checking the MTV Titanic Sounds music festival that will bring people down to the docks for a night of rock and pop. Despite its gravelly setting, this is an arty corner of the docks. Next to the stage is the huge Titanic sound studio that recently housed filming for Game of Thrones. And the surrounding hills provided inspiration for CS Lewis and his Narnia characters as well as the epic, Gullivers travels by Jonathan Swift.
This is a land of myth, and legend and storytelling, underpinned by rivets, ropes and chains. It is a city of imagination, grounded in gritty reality. And it’s a place of vision, driven by economic need. After all, the people here did create the biggest, most luxurious and most infamous ship in the world. And if you want to help spread the word that ‘she was alright when she left here. .’ Alan Gilfillan can sell you a T shirt.
This post is part of our Tales of Titanic Cities Tour.
We’ visited Liverpool and Belfast to find out more about how the two cities are connected to Titanic, joined in the Titanic Festival and tried to figure out what the story of the Titanic has to teach us one hundred years on.
Read these other posts from our Titanic Season.
- We’re more a steerage sort of family
- Kids make headlines at the Merseyside Maritime Museum
- She was alright leaving here – World’s only Titanic Boat Tour
- Marking the moment – Tiitanic hits an Iceberg
- Ten lessons from a sinking ship – Titanic sinks – marking the moment
- Inside the Berg – The Titanic Belfast Visitor Attraction
- That’s the problem with the wireless generation
- 10 ideas for family craic in Belfast city break