#OTD in 1912 – The RMS Titanic leaves port in Southampton, England for her first and only voyage.

At 7.30am, Captain Edward J. Smith boards Titanic with full crew. Third class passengers embarked at 9.30, followed by second and first class. Titanic sets sail from Southampton at noon heading for Cherbourg. Even before she leaves the harbour, there was disarray. The swell caused by the giant ship created a suction that broke the mooring ropes of the City of New York. A collision was narrowly avoided when Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, ordered the ship to reverse. Reports suggest that the ships were within 10 feet of each other before matters were brought under control.

Rather than a maritime disaster, the Titanic was an engineering triumph. There’s a common Belfast joke that taps into this feeling: “It was fine when it left us.” The Titanic was the pinnacle of Belfast’s industrial glory. This was in the days before partition when the majority Protestant city wore industrialisation as a badge of pride, differentiating itself from the agrarian, Catholic and rural south. Its industrialism was a real exception on the island of Ireland. Dublin was Edinburgh to Belfast’s Glasgow.

While the Triumph of the building of the Titanic was mainly an Ulster “Protestant” thing, the Tragedy of the Titanic was mainly an Irish “Catholic” thing. According to statistics nine people from Harland and Wolff were aboard on business. The island of Ireland’s Titanic story after it left Thompson Dock to sail to Southampton, is a different story altogether. It is a century’s old Irish story – “immigration”. When the Titanic docked at Cobh, Co Cork to take on passengers, on 11 April 1912, 113 Irish people boarded the ship, most seeking a new life in America. Of those 73 souls perished. In total 1,503 people died, including passengers and crew.

One of the issues that everyone needs to come to terms with is the messiness of our history. The Pope celebrated King Billy’s victory at the Boyne, Presbyterians were vibrant contributors to the United Irishmen, Presbyterians kept the Irish language alive when it was in danger of dying and the All Ireland Gaelic Football Cup is named after a Protestant, Sam Maguire. Like the Titanic story, most of the stories of the last 800 years are not divided neatly into the stories of one side or the other. Most of Ireland’s history is “our” story. It is a riddled with injustice, violence and deep pain. It is a history that needs contributions of repentance and forgiveness. Source: Soul Surmise

From their beginnings in the late 1850s, Belfast’s shipyards reproduced in microcosm the sectarian divisions of the larger city. The skilled workers (the carpenters, riveters, fitters, welders, etc.) were overwhelmingly Protestant – in the beginning, many of them were in fact Scottish and English migrants – while the unskilled workers (eg, the ship painters) tended to be Catholic. The two groups developed a heated rivalry during the frequent riots of the Victorian era, and it was not uncommon for Protestant workers to expel Catholics from the shipyards during moments of communal or political excitement. It was also not uncommon for the Protestant shipyard workers to clash with the Catholic navvies who built the city’s docks and railways. During the riots of 1864, Protestant ship carpenters and “rivet boys” attacked a group of Catholic navvies who had wrecked a Protestant school in town, chasing them into the harbour and shooting and killing one man. The riots of 1886, which lasted four months and cost over thirty lives, began with an argument between a Catholic navvy and a Protestant navvy who were cutting pipes for the new Alexandra Dock. A fight broke out after the former, emboldened by the Irish Home Rule Bill then being debated in Parliament, told the latter, “It won’t be long until none of your sort will be allowed to earn a loaf of bread in this country.” The next day a phalanx of Protestant shipyard workers, now becoming known as the Islandmen (for the Queen’s Island on which they worked), attacked the Catholic navvies; once more the Catholics were driven into the harbour, and once more one Catholic died. Source: Marks Doyle

Photo: Titanic underway after the near-collision with SS City of New York. On the left can be seen Oceanic and New York

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