'Titanic' and the promise of an age


At one level it was a simple if appalling tragedy: the destruction of a ship with the deaths of 1,500 people. But Belfast’s sunken colossus, briefly a symbol of the prowess of an empire, quickly became a portent of darker times – and is now a tangle of fact and fiction, reality and metaphor

HISTORY IS SLIPPERY. Few events have been so obsessively remembered as the sinking of the great liner Titanic in the early morning of April 15th, 1912. Newspapers published memorial supplements within days. The first film version, Saved from the Titanic, was released in May, just a month after the disaster, starring a survivor, Dorothy Gibson. The first book, by the Irish journalist Filson Young, was in the shops by mid-June. Postcards depicting the ship, sometimes with a weeping angel hovering over it, sold in huge quantities. Songs and poems, from vaudeville to Thomas Hardy, came in waves as thick as those that washed over the ship.

In the endless torrent of images and narratives that has flowed since, facts have to compete with fictions. The most visited grave of a Titanic victim is almost certainly that of Joseph Dawson, born in Dublin in 1888 and buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, after his body was recovered from the sea. The simple stone names him as J Dawson, allowing him to be wilfully confused with the fictional Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in James Cameron’s epic 1997 movie. The coincidence of names is accidental, but many prefer to believe otherwise. Often, it is not events that shape memories but the other way around.

Even with an event so exhaustively pored over and rehearsed as the fate of Titanic, the truth can be elusive. What did the band play as the ship went down? Everyone knows that it was Nearer My God to Thee, but it was probably another hymn, He Leadeth Me, with its resonant line “E’en death’s cold wave I will not flee.” Everyone knows, too, that the ship was holed beneath the surface when it struck a huge iceberg. In fact, Titanic probably would not have sunk if it had hit the iceberg head-on. The keel scraped along the side of the iceberg. There was no hole – just a series of thin gashes.

Or consider the most obvious question of all: how many died? There were two official inquiries into the disaster, one in the United States, one in Britain. The US Senate committee put the death toll at 1,517. The British Board of Trade reckoned on 1,503 lives lost. And then both inquiries revised their figures downwards, to 1,500 and 1,490, respectively. Between the lowest of these figures and the highest are potentially 27 people who have disappeared without trace from an event that has been relentlessly memorialised. However hard we remember, oblivion is inescapable.

And if public memory is so shifty for a single, contained, voluminously documented event like the sinking of Titanic, what must it be for infinitely more massive and complex historical episodes? Titanic’s is the first in a full decade of Irish centenaries. Both parts of Ireland will have to trace paths through the divided meanings of the Ulster Covenant, the rise and fall of Home Rule, the fight for women’s suffrage, the Dublin Lockout, the first World War, the Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish war, the foundation of Northern Ireland, the Treaty and the Civil War. It says something that Titanic, a byword for disaster, is seized on almost with relief as a relatively nice and uncontroversial centenary.

Memory is shaped by politics, by myth, by the demands of narrative, by the desire to find some kind of meaning in the absurdity of death. We can see all of these forces at work in the way Titanic was and is understood. The ship and its fate act as a microcosm in which we can see how events become images and how those images acquire their own power, their own truth.

Three days after Titanic sank in the mid-Atlantic, the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced in the House of Commons in London. The two events were not entirely unrelated. The ship was the pride of the Harland and Wolff yards in Belfast, whose presiding genius, Edward Harland, had served as unionist mayor of the city during the crisis over the Government of Ireland Bill 1886, or First Home Rule Bill. Harland had let it be known that, if Home Rule were to be introduced, the firm would relocate to the Clyde or the Mersey. The kind of Ireland he imagined as resulting from self-government was not one in which he could imagine building the world’s most advanced ships.

Titanic was thus a product of the same conditions that ultimately created partition: the gulf between the northeast’s ultramodernity and the largely rural, relatively underdeveloped economy of the south. It came from a new kind of Ireland: Belfast had grown at a phenomenal rate. It surged past Dublin in 1891 to become Ireland’s largest city, then grew by another 35 per cent in the last decade of the 19th century alone. Harland and Wolff, moreover, embodied Belfast’s integration into both the UK and the British Empire. Edward Harland set up in Belfast only because he was refused permission to do so in Liverpool. The coal and iron that fed the shipyard came from across the Irish Sea. The expansion of the Royal Navy and of imperial trade created the demand for its products.

Titanic was built on an existing foundation of industrial and technological superlatives: as early as 1899 Harland and Wolff had launched the world’s largest ship, Oceanic. Belfast also had, as Jonathan Bardon notes, the world’s “largest rope works, tobacco factory, linen spinning mill, tea machinery works, dry dock and aerated water factory”. World-class technology was being developed and produced by engineering firms such as Sirocco, Mackie’s, John Rowan and Combe Barbour. There was simply no chance that southern Ireland, lacking this kind of leading-edge industry, could have produced Titanic.

The threat to move Harland and Wolff across the Irish Sea may have been bluff, but it was credible: the yards belonged to an imperial and industrial world, not to an Ireland of romantic peasants.

This feeling was not theoretical; it was made all too concrete in the periodic expulsions of Catholic workers from the Harland and Wolff yards during times of heightened political tension. Just three months after Titanic sank, vicious and organised assaults forced all 2,000 Catholics out of the yards. But these workers had already been expelled from the official meaning of Titanic: its building was universally hailed as a “great Anglo-Saxon triumph”. Irish Catholics could not be allowed to share either that triumph or the communal shock that followed the sinking.

In that sense, the ship, or what it represented, was the hidden iceberg on which dreams of an uncomplicated voyage towards Irish independence would founder. But the liner’s own doom could also be seen as a political metaphor of one kind or another.

James Connolly, writing from a nationalist and socialist perspective, saw the fate of the ship prefigured in the hardships endured by the workers who built her: “It has been computed that some seventeen lives were lost on the Titanic before she left the Lagan; a list of the maimed and hurt and of those suffering from minor injuries as a result of the accidents . . . would read like a roster of the wounded after a battle.” Connolly’s language eerily prefigured another, very different way of understanding the disaster: as a harbinger of a much greater doom, that of the Battle of the Somme, four years later, when the 36th Ulster Division, composed largely of members of the anti-Home Rule Ulster Volunteer Force, was slaughtered, taking more than 5,000 casualties in two days.

The disaster had a special resonance for Belfast, but the idea that Titanic in some way foretold the horror of the war was something of a commonplace. The metaphor was encoded in the language: contemporary accounts of the Somme are full of “titanic struggles” and even “titanic machine guns”. The parallels were irresistible. There was the hubris of high expectations turned to the nemesis of mass death. There was the idea of human blindness: the inability to see looming icebergs or inevitable carnage. Above all, there was the loss of faith in technology. The same industrial processes that created the ship churned out the barbed wire and artillery. The image of progress as a giant metallic machine was holed in 1912 and utterly sunk in 1914.

Even before these retrospective meanings were supplied by the Great War, the Titanic that disappeared beneath the Atlantic waves had quickly re-emerged as moral and metaphor.

One of the most obvious ways in which it could be construed was as a microcosm of social hierarchy. Filson Young, in his instant book, described the ship as a floating town “with miles of streets and hundreds of separate houses and buildings in it”. And these streets were every bit as segregated as those in terrestrial towns: “Imagine her to be split in half from bow to stern so that you could look, as one looks at a hive. You would find a microcosm of civilized society with the rulers on top, surrounded by the rich and the luxurious, enjoying the best of everything. A ways down, you would find the servants and parasites . . . Up above are the people who rest and enjoy; down below the people who sweat and suffer.”

There was no doubt that social class shaped the tragedy: the rich had a much better chance of survival. Of the 1,500 dead, 700 were among the crew, made up largely of working-class men, and 536 were third-class passengers, made up largely of poorer immigrants. Only 38 per cent of third-class passengers survived, compared to more than 60 per cent of those in first class. The last meal served to those first-class passengers told its own tale of lavishness and indulgence: oysters, salmon, filet mignon, sirloin, lamb, roast squab, pâté de foie gras.

The contrasts were stark, but it might have been possible to tell a somewhat different story. There were, after all, second-class passengers, too – most of them British, many of them women, almost all of them members of a rising middle class that actually benefited from Victorian and Edwardian ideals of progress. And even for the third-class passengers, the trip on Titanic might have been an experience of unaccustomed luxury. For Irish emigrants, in particular, the contrast between the relative comfort of this planned passage to the United States and that endured by their counterparts a few decades earlier would surely have seemed remarkable. There was, for them, very obvious progress, from the long confinement in tiny spaces aboard leaky wooden ships to the fast, relatively easy voyage on a grand liner. The last meal served to the third-class passengers – rice soup, roast beef with brown gravy, sweetcorn, boiled potatoes, plum pudding with sweet sauce, biscuits, fresh bread and fruit – lacked the extravagance of foie gras and oysters, but it was infinitely better than the communal stirabout served just a few decades earlier.

But this story of optimism and progress didn’t suit the metaphorical demands of the moment. Titanic’s obvious narrative was that progress was illusory, that all human pretensions will be exposed. The sinking, in this narrative, was not really an accident at all, but an inevitability. It was a replay of the myth of Icarus, in which pride in human ingenuity leads to a plunging fall into the sea. Or, for a culture that was still deeply religious, it was a modern version of the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel, God’s punishment of human presumption. The very grandeur of the ship was a provocative challenge to God’s monopoly on creation. As Young put it, the ship, which “dwarfed the very mountains beside the water”, “seemed like some impious blasphemy”.

The disaster was thus a drowning of the vanities, a living sermon on the follies of progress, of pretension, of self-love. The great expression of this feeling is Thomas Hardy’s poem The Convergence of the Twain, written for a charity fundraising event for the survivors. His chillingly bleak reflections on human vanity and nature’s indifference can hardly have cheered the bereaved. His image of the mirrors in the ship’s luxury quarters has the force of a medieval memento mori: “Over the mirrors meant / To glass the opulent / The sea-worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.” In truth, Titanic could stand for anything and everything: class divisions, the Great War, the threat of Home Rule, British pluck (many of the early accounts stressed the sangfroid of the Englishmen who waited calmly for their deaths), the hubris of technology, the folly of human pride. Its meaning was determined by politics, myth, religion, masculinity and subsequent events. It shows us more clearly than any other episode the way historical events are shaped to very different demands.

And this is nowhere more obvious than in Ireland. There are two separate Irish Titanics. One is the icon of Protestant Belfast, embodying both its pride and its anxieties. It is a tale of the makers, from which Catholics are excluded. The other is a tale of the third-class passengers. In reality they were Scandinavian and Italian and Serbian, but it is the Irish cohort among them that is privileged in memory. Cameron’s movie, with its Irish music and dance, and its mother telling her children the story of the children of Lir, has fixed an image of the disaster embedded in the larger history of Irish Catholic emigration.

Might it be possible to bring these stories together, to see the Irish aspect of Titanic as one that contains all the contradictions of history: pride and shame, hope and disaster, death and survival, belief in the possibility of human progress tempered by respect for its limitations? If it were, the ship might function, for once, not as a dire warning but as a gentle promise.