An Irishman's Diary

 

OLD ghosts will rise from the mists of the Lagan when work starts later this year on the £100 million tourist centre on the site of the derelict Belfast shipyard where the Titanic and other great ships were built. Not all the spirits will be from the host of 1,500 people who perished on the Titanic’s maiden voyage in 1912, among them Thomas Andrews, the yard’s joint managing director, and his team of eight workers who were on board to attend to minor defects. The Titanic was not the yard’s only tragedy.

The names of the Reina del Pacifico and the Juan Peron still also echo sadly down the grey streets of Belfast, from which thousands of workers travelled by foot or by tram in the early dawn to Harland and Wolff’s massive shipyard on “the Island”. No-one worked in “the shipyard”; they worked on “the Island” and there was no prouder appellation than that of “an Island man”.

I remember being smuggled as a boy into the yard by neighbours who were island men to witness the launch in 1946 by the then Princess Elizabeth of HMS Eagle, a giant aircraft carrier. My only camouflage was the mandatory duncher, the soft cap worn by all Island men, except foremen and other superior beings, who sported bowler hats. It was said that these symbols of unpopular authority were lined with steel in case a heavy tool might be “accidentally” dropped from the deck of a ship by a careless worker. The yard was a mystical galaxy of clatter and clamour inhabited by red leaders, riveters, blacksmiths, drillers, platers, welders and other exotic denizens.

Many of them would have been working on the refurbishment of the Reina del Pacifico three years later when its engine room exploded. The 17,700-ton passenger ship was built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff in 1931 for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company. It operated between Liverpool and the west coast of South America, carrying 886 passengers and 301 crew. In 1936 it made the voyage to Valparaiso in Chile via the Panama Canal in a record 25 days.

During the second World War the Reina del Pacifico was requisitioned by the British government as a troop carrier and took part in the Allied invasions of North Africa and Sicily. After its war service it was returned to Belfast for a refit.

Following a comprehensive overhaul, and before being handed back to its owners as a liner, it went on sea trials on the Irish Sea and the Firth of Clyde; its engines ran constantly at various speeds for over 33 hours. On its return to Belfast Lough on the afternoon of September 11th, 1947 the four engines exploded off the Co Down coast.

The Belfast Weekly Telegraph reported: “In an instant the engine room was a shambles, the lighting extinguished, ladders and access platforms destroyed and the atmosphere thick with smoke. When rescuers entered the engine room they found fires breaking out and bodies everywhere.” Twenty-eight workers were killed instantly and more than twice that number were horribly burned and scalded. All of them were Island men. The Reina del Pacifico was repaired and continued its voyages to South America until 1958, when it was sold for scrap.

The second tragedy also had South American connections. The Compania Argentina de Pesca, whose president was Alfredo Ryan, commissioned Harland and Wolff to build a 24,000-ton whaler factory ship, the largest vessel of its class in the world. Named after the country’s president, Juan Peron, it was destined to harvest the seas of Antartica. Its giant hull rose high out of the water in the Musgrave Channel and its boarding deck was reached by two wooden gangways.

On the last day of January, 1951, workers huddled in the cold damp of a winter’s night on the upper gangway waiting for the “knocking-off” hooter to sound. The gangway began to creak and shudder under the weight of the tightly packed workers. There were more creaks, then a loud crack like a thunder clap. The gangway broke in two at the thirteenth step.

Some of the men fell 80 feet into the water, their dunchers floating away on the tide. Others fell to the quayside and lay like broken dolls. One man, who was at the top of the gangway when it snapped, managed to grab a thick steel plate welded to the side of the ship a few feet below the upper deck. His fingers bled with the exertion of holding on for agonising minutes until one of the men left on the deck was lowered upside down by his mates and grabbed his wrists. They were both pulled back to the safety of the deck. In a newspaper interview he said the only thing that kept him hanging on was the thought of his young disabled son. In all, 18 Island men were killed and another 50 or so injured.

The Juan Peron followed the whales in the Antarctic for eight years. It was regarded as an unlucky ship. Its processing machinery was forever breaking down. A young woman was murdered on board and her body thrown over the side. The Argentine government would not or could not give Alfredo Ryan the £3 million he had paid for the ship and refused to return it to him.

After Peron’s death it was renamed the Cruz del Sur and changed ownership several times. When it was offered to one shipowner he said he would prefer to buy an elephant for his back garden. It ended its days as a training ship for the merchant marine.