Titanic centre gets mixed reaction on opening day


While the First Minister declared it a ‘must-see’, it remains to be seen if the attraction will last, writes FINOLA MEREDITH

WOMEN DRESSED in Edwardian hats and parasols strolled among the crowds of excited international tourists as Titanic Belfast, billed as the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience, geared up to open its doors to the public on Saturday morning. The extraordinary building itself, modelled on the hulls of Belfast’s great liners, glittered in the sun. Inside, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness – dressed almost identically in dark suits and red ties – posed with riveters’ hammers to the sound of a gospel choir singing the uplifting Jackie Wilson classic Higher and Higher.

Despite Mr McGuinness’s acknowledgement that the “remembrance of those who were lost [in the Titanic disaster] is probably the most important part of today”, clearly this was a day of triumph and celebration, a day for decisively reclaiming the legacy of the Titanic for the city of her birth.

The building was officially opened by the First and Deputy First Ministers in a ribbon-cutting ceremony, watched by 105-year-old Cyril Quigley who had seen the Titanic being launched in 1911. Mr Robinson said that Titanic Belfast was “a must-see destination which stands alongside the best visitor attractions in the world”. Both Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness referred to the powerful political symbolism of the occasion.

“Northern Ireland has risen through conflict and division to a new era of confidence,” said Mr Robinson, while Mr McGuinness said that Titanic Belfast was a direct result of the peace process and represented “a bold statement that we need to stand together”. He added that he was proud that his father’s uncle, Hugh Rooney, who worked in the shipyard as a joiner, had helped build the Titanic.

Construction of Titanic Belfast cost £77 million (€92.4 million), with £60 million of the total coming from the public purse. But Mr Robinson insisted the project would be a boost to the local economy: “It will bring people to Northern Ireland and we will get a return many times over for the money that was spent.”

Texan architect Eric Kuhne, designer of Titanic Belfast, said he was running out of words to describe his pride in being part of such a special occasion.

“The thing that impresses me most is that everyone has taken ownership of this project,” he said. “It teaches the world about the genius of Belfast. This city built great ships and the ethos and the DNA of that are part of this building. It captures that spirit.”

Initial public reaction to the lavish exhibition, which charts the life and death of the ship through nine interactive galleries, was mixed. “I was blown away by the scale of the show, it was awe-inspiring,” said Lorraine from east Belfast, though she confessed to feeling a bit wobbly on the Shipyard Ride, a cable-car journey through the sights, smells and sounds of the shipyard gantries. Lorraine’s daughter Nuala was disappointed that visitors did not get a chance to see the much-publicised replica of the Titanic’s famous staircase, which is in the venue’s banqueting hall, and not part of the tour.

Chinese students Sally Lai and Shen Yang had hoped to see a large-scale model of the ship, but were impressed by the glass floor which allows visitors to view the wreck of Titanic in striking detail.

Launched with joy, hope and pride, just as its namesake was over a century ago, it remains to be seen whether Titanic Belfast will prove to be a lasting success.