Tuesday 19 May 2020

Celtic Roots Craic 70 – Down at 'The Yard' – The Titanic Quarter

Filming the Titanic Quarter from the Goliath Crane (100m up)

Now, I live down the road from Belfast – otherwise known as B’lfahst! – and Belfast’s main claim to fame is its history of shipbuilding. The Harland and Wolff company, who started shipbuilding there in 1861, was founded by local, Edward James Harland, and a German immigrant from Hamburg, Gustav Wilhelm Wolff. 

Harland had previously managed the existing Hickson’s Shipyard and bought this yard from his employer in 1858, making his assistant Wolff a partner in the new company. They built ships for the white Star line – the Olympic, Titanic and Britannic – between 1909 and 1914. Harland & Wolff also once owned shipyards in Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Southhampton.

In 1936 the company started an aircraft manufacturing facility with the Short brothers, known as Short Brothers and Harland Ltd. – known locally as Shorts.

In 1898 my great-grandfather died – he’d lived in Glasgow since the age of seventeen – and my grandfather and his older sister then moved back to Northern Ireland, where my great-grandfather was originally from. My grandfather began to work in the joinery workshop in Harland & Wolff’s shipyard – or ’The Yard’ as it was always known. 

During the Second World War the shipyard employed about thirty five thousand people, constructing six aircraft carriers and repairing several thousand ships. The aircraft factory – Shorts – were also building Stirling Bombers. In 1941 the Luftwaffe bombed the shipyard heavily, causing a lot of damage to the yard, the city and completely destroying the aircraft factory.

The most famous ship built at Harland & Wolff was, of course, the RMS Titanic, which unfortunately sank on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, via Cherbourg in France and Cobh in the south of Ireland. More than 1,500 lives were lost, because the ship didn’t carry enough lifeboats for all the passengers.

I had a great uncle – a man called William George Given – who in 1912 had booked to emigrate to Canada on the Titanic. However, he was so anxious to make the trip that he decided not to wait and took another boat instead – which turned out to be a very good move!

 A few years ago the Titanic Belfast visitor centre was opened in what is know known as the Titanic Quarter of the city. You can learn how the ship was built, the history of the shipyard and see what the luxury cabins and ballroom looked like, walk around the slipways, etc. You can also visit the sister ship – the SS Nomadic – which has been restored nearby.

The shipyard is still in operation, though it only employs a small fraction of the thousands who used to work there. Belfast’s skyline is dominated by the two huge yellow cranes – Goliath and Samson – which span 459 feet across the dry dock below and can lift up to 840 tonnes to a height of 230 feet. They were built by the German company Krupp in 1969 and 1974, respectively. Nowadays, instead of building ships the yard mostly repair oil rigs and manufacture wind generators.
In 2011, before the Titanic Centre was built I was asked to film some video from the top of one of the cranes for the new Titanic Belfast website. Four of us went up inside the tapered leg of the crane in a small lift. At the top there is a large room containing two huge diesel engines, which are used to propel the crane along rails. We were able to walk along the top of the gantry, which is over 300 feet above the ground, and film the harbour from it. 

While we were filming the weather suddenly changed from beautiful spring sunshine to wind and snow blowing horizontally – so we had to make a hurried escape back to the lift area!

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