Anniversaries of sea and sky


Next year marks the centenary of Bram Stoker’s death and of the loss of ‘Titanic’, writes MAL ROGERS

IN THE sixth century, Gregory of Tours noted at the beginning of his history of the world that “a great many things keep on happening, some of them good and some of them bad”. This conclusion by the perceptive Gregory has been backed up over the past 1,400 years of things, predictably enough, continuing to happen. During 2012 the anniversaries of many of these, both good and bad, will be marked.

In Dublin, the 100th anniversary of the death of Bram Stoker, on April 20th, is a day to note. The story of Count Dracula and his extravagant fangs was essentially a fiction from Ireland played out in Whitby, London and Transylvania. European folklore provided the supernatural cauldron from which Dracula sprang, influenced by Ireland’s mythology.

Stoker’s mother, Charlotte, could tell many a ghoulish tale, and would claim she heard banshees calling and spirits keening on the night of her mother’s death. The Romanian tourist board will surely give maximum respect to the modest man from Clontarf who turned their very own Vlad Dracul (of impaling fame) into the horror genre’s major A-lister.

The other big centenary in 2012 concerns maritime Belfast. Early in 1911 the world’s largest liner, Titanic, edged down the slipway at Harland and Wolff and settled into the dark waters of Belfast Lough. On April 2nd, 1912, after almost a year of being fitted out, she slipped anchor and headed out to the Irish Sea. Her last port of call before setting course for New York was Cobh.

The tragedy that befell Titanicon the night of April 15th was as rigorous an application of Sod’s Law as could ever be found. Operational errors, disregarded iceberg warnings and calamitous disorganisation among the crew all contributed to the disaster. Meanwhile, on Californian, a ship that was visible from Titanic, the radio operator had gone to bed early and received none of the stricken vessel’s distress signals. As dawn broke over the Atlantic, all that was left of the world’s greatest liner were the lifeboats, some debris and an oil slick. More than 1,500 people perished.

Another Belfast institution features in 2012. On its opening night on May 12th, 1862, the Ulster Hall was described by the Northern Whig as “a music hall fit for the production of any composition, and for the reception of any artist, however eminent”.

So it was to prove. The venue, during its long history, has staged readings by Charles Dickens, recitals by Enrico Caruso and sermons by Rev Ian Paisley. It has hosted Lord Randolph Churchill and Sir Edward Carson calling for opposition to home rule, and its walls have resounded to the sound of God Save the Queen as well as Amhrán na bhFiann. And in 1971 it was the venue for the first public performance of Stairway to Heaven – surely as momentuous a musical occasion as Handel’s little gig on Fishamble Street.

Next year also features other musical landmarks, including the 25th anniversary of the death of the pianist Liberace. According to his obituary in the Daily Telegraph, “Liberace’s private tastes were steeped in the absence of sobriety.” Wladziu Valentino Liberace’s views on music were similarly refreshing. An accomplished showman, he explained, “If I play Tchaikovsky, I play his melodies and skip his spiritual struggles. If there’s any time left over, I fill in with a lot of runs up and down the keyboard.” And speaking of Tchaikovsky, by definition 2012 will be the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s retreat, the event that led the Russian composer to write his 1812 Overture.

Other musical milestones include the 25th anniversary of Fairytale of New Yorkand the 70th anniversary of Bing Crosby’s recording of White Christmas. It will also be 160 years since the death of Thomas Moore, reputedly the first person to sell a million units – namely, his lyrics for The Last Rose of Summer.

The 100th anniversary of the death of Wilbur Wright will occur on May 30th. He and his brother Orville, who died in 1948, are credited with building the world’s first successful powered aircraft and completing several no-frills flights. And here’s a curious thing: Orville Wright, the first man to fly; Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space; and Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, were all alive at the same time.

And so the last opportunity for a meeting between the three aviation pioneers happened 13 years before Michael O’Leary was born. Just 13 years separating the first man who flew from the first man to think of charging airline passengers for going to the toilet. If only they could have met. Surely that would have been an anniversary to cherish.