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25 May 2012 Edition

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1912: A Year to Remember

WITH ALL EYES AT SEA, WHO WAS LOOKING AT WHAT WAS HAPPENING ON DRY LAND IN BELFAST?

It would be very surprising if any of the Titanic productions made any reference to the often appalling social conditions of Belfast which formed the major preoccupation for most Belfast citizens in 1912

IF A RANDOM SAMPLE of Belfast people was asked to name the most important event of 1912, it is highly likely that the majority of them would cite the sinking of the RMS Titanic. This is partly a consequence of the present saturation coverage of Titanic commemorations and partly a pre-existing, enduring interest in the story of the doomed vessel, the most famous ship in modern-day history.

In many ways, the Titanic provides writers with the perfect soap opera on a grand scale. On the Titanic, 2,208 individuals of widely different backgrounds - representing an almost perfect microcosm of society at that time - are forced to interact when an unforeseen catastrophe occurs. Due to the lack of lifeboats, deaths become inevitable. This situation sheds light not only on the class structures of the time but brings out acts of selfless heroism and shameless cowardice. It is a story with universal appeal and it has inspired several acclaimed films, many documentaries, seemingly thousands of books, an excellent requiem and a fine poem by Thomas Hardy. No aspect of the Titanic story has been left unexamined and it has formed the basis of a burgeoning tourist industry in Belfast.

There is, however, a danger that the Titanic story overwhelms other events in Belfast in 1912, the legacy of which remains with us to the present day.

It is quite likely that some of the productions, publications and films mentioned earlier would also refer to the Home Rule crisis, the signing of the Ulster Covenant and the Balmoral Unionist Convention. It is probably less likely that many of the sample would refer to Winston Churchill’s visit to Belfast in support of Home Rule, Bonar Law’s pledge of unstinting support to Ulster unionism, the Castledawson incident, or the shipyard expulsions of that summer. It would be very surprising if any made any reference to the often appalling social conditions of Belfast which formed the major preoccupation for most Belfast citizens in 1912.

The historian AJP Taylor remarked that people were drawn to historical drama, imagining themselves couriers at Queen Elizabeth I’s court when in fact their ancestors at the time were probably starving in some ditch. Similarly, 100 years ago, Belfast was a demanding place for many Belfast people in a way difficult for us to understand today. Families tended to be large and there was no welfare state to give assistance. While a skilled worker in the shipyards, Sirocco Works, Mackies or Coombe Barbers might have earned just over £2 per week before the First World War, life was less fortunate for the unskilled labourer. They could expect around £1 per week, with dockers earning perhaps £1.25. Adequate enough, as long as the wife or daughters supplemented the family income with work in the mills but if there was long-term unemployment or serious family illness then problems could become insurmountable.

The problem was compounded for the labouring classes by the sectarian and political divisions in the city. While Belfast was certainly a prosperous industrial city, the skilled trades were closed shops; and while most of their members were Protestants, they also excluded other Protestants as well as Catholics. Competition for labouring jobs between the two labouring groups could be intense and conflict was fanned by an all-class Protestant alliance resolutely opposed to Home Rule. In 1912, several factors merged to cement this all-class unionist alliance. The Balmoral Convention of Easter Tuesday 1912 saw Bonar Law and 70 Conservative MPs give unstinting support to Ulster unionism. In November, Belfast had 15,665 members in 26 Ulster Clubs that were to provide the infrastructure for the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force that was formed the following year. Violence in support of the Unionist cause was strongly hinted. Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Ulster 1912’ caught the prevailing unionist mood. It begins:

 The dark eleventh hour

Draws on and sees us sold

It ends chillingly:

If England drives us forth

We shall not fall alone

Following an incident in Castledawson, County Derry, on 29 June in which Protestant Sunday School children were said to have been assaulted by drunken members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians there was a spate of industrial expulsions from the shipyards in July. About 2,400 Catholics and 600 Protestant trade unionists were driven (often violently) from their work. In September, the Ulster Covenant pledging to oppose Home Rule by all means possible was signed by almost half a million Protestants.

Clearly then, Belfast was a divided and unsettled city in 1912. Catholics who comprised around a quarter of the 35,000 population felt very vulnerable. The Titanic story as a drama cannot really allow for this. Like Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, its dramatic tension comes from ordinary people having their predictable life disturbed by an unforeseen turn of events. The true background of Belfast when the Titanic was being built would show tensions which would disrupt the Titanic narrative. The 15,000 shipyard workers in Harland & Wolff were caught in larger forces than shipbuilding enterprises and the tragedy for Belfast was that these forces persisted for so long.

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