'Titanic' launch ticket, May 1911

Sat, Oct 27, 2012, 01:00

A history of Ireland in 100 objects:Shortly after noon on May 31st, 1911, a huge crowd gathered at the Harland and Woolf shipyard at Queen’s Island in Belfast Lough for the launch of the great transatlantic liner ‘Titanic’. Among them were many of the workers who had built it. This admission ticket belonged to David Moneypenny, a ship’s painter who worked on the first-class quarters.

From the creases it seems likely that he folded it to put in his pocket. For him, for his colleagues, for Belfast and for Protestant Ulster, this was a moment of extraordinary accomplishment. ‘Titanic’ was at the leading edge of 20th-century technology.

That such a world-beating ship was created in an Irish city was astonishing. But then Belfast was a new kind of Irish place. It had grown at a phenomenal rate, surging past Dublin in 1891 to become Ireland’s largest city, and then growing by another 35 per cent in the last decade of the 19th century alone. ‘Titanic’ was built on an existing foundation of industrial and technological superlatives: as early as 1899 HW had launched the world’s largest ship, ‘Oceanic’.

Belfast also had, as the historian Jonathan Bardon notes, the world’s “largest rope works, tobacco factory, linen spinning mill, tea machinery works, dry dock and aerated water factory”. There was no chance that southern Ireland, lacking this kind of globally significant industry, could have produced ‘Titanic’: it belonged to an imperial and industrial world, not to an Ireland of romantic peasants. And its creators were largely Protestant. Two thousand Catholics worked in the shipyard, but they were not part of its official story: the ship was universally hailed as a “great Anglo-Saxon triumph”.

With the industrial northeast so deeply integrated into an imperial economy, it was never likely that the idea of a Home Rule Ireland, dominated by agricultural interests and heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, would be easily sold to the Protestants who built ‘Titanic’. Indeed, ‘Titanic’ itself came to be represented in popular culture through two quite different versions of Ireland. One was the steerage-class emigrants who were among the 1,500 who drowned on the early morning of April 15th, 1912, when the great ship sank on its maiden voyage. The other was an Ulster Protestant identity, in which that tragedy seemed to foretell a wider doom, an almost apocalyptic sense of threat.

Three days after ‘Titanic’ sank the third Home Rule Bill was introduced in the House of Commons in London. Three months later vicious and organised assaults forced all 2,000 Catholics out of the yards. On September 28th, 237,000 men and 234,000 women, from all classes of Protestant Ireland, signed the Ulster Covenant or an associated declaration, committing the men to “using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland”. In January 1913 the Ulster Unionist Council, under Dublin-born Edward Carson, decided to organise 100,000 signatories of the covenant into an Ulster Volunteer Force and to train them in the use of firearms.

These events created two paradoxes. One was that of a violent loyalist rebellion against the state to which it pledged its allegiance. The other was that of an Irish nationalism appealing to the idea of a unified nation whose existence was anything but obvious.

Thanks to Andrea Kennedy

Where to see it Ulster Museum, Botanic Gardens, Belfast, 048-90440000, nmni.com/um

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