Titanic - Belfast Connections

Linen Hall Library exhibition packs a Titanic punch. Click Play Video for a podcast with curator, Deborah Douglas

When passengers stepped aboard the most magnificent ship ever built for her maiden voyage to New York on April 10, 1912 (many for new lives abroad) they had no idea that they would soon become part of history, and all for the wrong reasons. Caught up in one of the most famous maritime disasters of our times, 1,523 would meet their deaths at the mercy of the Atlantic ocean.

RMS Titanic was one of a series of ships built by Harland and Wolff at Queen’s Island in Belfast for the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, better known as the White Star Liner.

Weighing over 46,000 tonnes and measuring in excess of 850 feet she was, at the time, the largest ship on earth. Certified to carry 3,547 passengers and crew, Titanic was the pinnacle of ship design, an all singing, all dancing marvel with a grand staircase to prove it.

Considered to be practically unsinkable, she launched in a blaze of publicity – the future of luxury oceanic travel. She carried 20 lifeboats aboard, enough for 1,178 people. At 11.40pm on April 14, she struck an iceberg south of the Grand Banks off the coast of Nova Scotia, and in less than three hours sank without trace. 703 of her passengers survived. The remaining 1,523 weren’t so lucky.

The annual Titanic – Made In Belfast Festival commemorates those who lost their lives and celebrates the legend that is the ship herself with various events in venues across the city. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the festival programme is the Titanic – Belfast Connections exhibition at the Linen Hall Library.

Curated by library assistant Deborah Douglas, and compiled of rare, first edition books, never before seen curios and eye catching, period Titanic paraphernalia – not to mention a trinket box owned by the world famous survivor, Molly Brown – the exhibition is a most see for any Titanic enthusiasts keen to learn more about the the ill-fated ship as well as the opportunist tendencies of publishers at the time.

'The exhibition was compiled to highlight those books and other rare objects that the library has in it's own collections that relate to the Titanic,' explains Douglas. 'But we also acquired other exhibits from various places in Belfast.

'For example, we have four oil paintings of the Titanic by Belfast artist John White, who worked in the shipyard and was a self-taught artist, which are on loan from Cavannaghs antique dealers in Belfast, as is Molly Brown's trinket box. We also have two workman's models of the Titanic on loan from a company called Mr JD's, a restaurant in east Belfast.'

Other curious exhibits on show include a flawless collection of Titanic coins, American half dollars, each embossed with an iconic image of the ship, from her birth in the Harland and Wolff shipyard to her demise on the high seas.

But it's the aforementioned trinket box that is, perhaps, the crown jewel in this particular exhibition. Renamed by the press after her death as 'the unsinkable Molly Brown', Margaret Brown, born July 18 in Hannibal, Misouri, survived the sinking of the Titanic. Her trinket box - a petite, brass object - was given to her by her husband, James Joseph Brown, to mark her survival.

'The box was actually bought in a flea market in New York and brought back to Ireland and sold to Cavanagh's. It was only when the chap did a bit of research that he realised who Margaret Brown was,' reveals Douglas. 

'She was quite an interesting woman. She used her celebrity, if you like, after she survived the sinking to promote good causes. She actually created the juvenille court system in America, as well as different social and economic suffragette movements that she was interested in. So she had quite an interesting life story.

'I have really enjoyed putting together the exhibition and finding artefacts that we didnt know existed,' adds Douglas. 'We have had many people coming to share their stories and experiences of the ship as well as visitors from as far away as Korea and Canada commenting on the exhibition. In the run up to the 2012 centenary celebrations, we're hoping that this exhibition will become an annual event in the library.'

Titanic - Belfast Connections runs in the Linen Hall Library until April 30. Other Titanic - Made In Belfast events, talks and readings will take place in the library as well as W5 in the Odyssey. Check out the Belfast City Council website for more information.

Lee Henry