If there’s a date on Belfast’s calendar that warrants much more acknowledgement than it gets it’s this coming Sunday, May 31
It’s a day of unique historical significance - locally, nationally and internationally - but it will go mostly unnoticed.
Some of us will ponder and cherish on Sunday but fewer will actively commemorate RMS Titanic’s launch on May 31, 1911.
Yet the iconic vessel was just one of a distinguished quartet of ships - and more - being celebrated by an illustrious list of luminaries and an unprecedented multitude of onlookers.
The truly extraordinary event occurred over a hundred years ago when ‘mass communications’ was in its infancy but it was a public spectacle, reported worldwide, that would probably have eclipsed today’s Irish Open!
In Newcastle some of the golfing contestants will shout ‘fore’. On May 31, 1911 Belfast shouted ‘four’!
A Night to Remember was the name of the 1958 film recounting the final, tragic night of RMS Titanic.
May 31, 1911 was undoubtedly ‘A Day to Remember’!
It was a particularly fine Wednesday - according to the News Letter ‘the glow of the soft turquoise sky, from which the piercing rays of the sun descended, made the heat exceedingly trying.’
The events that unfolded on the River Lagan during those unusually sultry weather conditions - and the folk who participated - made an impact on history that still reverberates.
RMS Titanic was launched, her name according to historian Andrew Wilson “now the third most widely recognised word in the world, after ‘God’ and ‘Coca-Cola.’”
Beside Titanic on the River Lagan was her Belfast-built elder sister RMS Olympic, one of the most significant vessels in maritime history - yet rarely acclaimed in the land where she was built.
Olympic was handed over to her White Star Line owners on the same day that Titanic was launched, and she wasn’t just a co-star in that epic maritime extravaganza.
Olympic was unquestionably the leading lady!
She was the largest, heaviest, most innovative and most luxurious liner in the world and May 31, 1911 was her debut. 0
She was the first of the three of her class, the forerunner of her ‘retrospectively’ more famous sister Titanic and of the little-recounted but equally historic hospital ship Britannic.
Apart from Olympic’s peacetime trips across the Atlantic, when her regular passengers included Hollywood greats, international celebrities and political and industrial giants, she was requisitioned as a troop carrier during WWI and became the most successful and best known military carrier of her time.
She’s said to have transported over 200,000 troops and personnel over a distance of nearly 200,000 miles, during which she burnt well over a quarter of a million tons of coal!
Her massively impressive wartime service earned her the nickname ‘Old Reliable.’
Titanic and Olympic’s presence on the Lagan together was probably the greatest collective tonnage in any one port in the history of shipping up to that time!
But they were only a part of the historic occasion.
Their two ‘little sisters’ were there as well - the tenders Nomadic and Traffic - their Belfast-built ‘taxis’, designed to transport their passengers from Cherbourg’s quays out to the massive vessels that were unable to enter the shallow French port.
They’d been handed over to the White Star Line several days previously, and on May 31, 1911, when the celebrations were over, they left the Lagan with the Olympic.
Nomadic and Traffic sailed to Cherbourg, and Olympic went to Liverpool.
The two little tenders were designed for ‘taxi duties’ with Titanic, and the Nomadic was particularly luxurious and beautifully decorated for her rich first and second class passengers.
They only carried out their duties once, as Titanic was doomed to destruction on her maiden voyage, but the two hardy little vessels both entered war service, and became known as heroic troop carriers.
It was a spectacular day on the Lagan, with the four soon-to-be famous ships moored in the port where they were born - three about to leave and to take their special place in posterity, and the fourth - Titanic - waiting to be pulled by tug-boats to the fitting out wharf, and from thence into history.
Over 100,000 folk watched Titanic’s launch. Their deafening cheer lasted for 62 seconds and over 100 journalists relayed the story around the world.
But two more Belfast icons attended, indeed managed and organised, the event.
They were Lord and Lady Pirrie, the ‘father and mother’ of the shipyard, and of much of Belfast’s industrial, social and charitable infrastructure.
First cousins, husband and wife, manufacturing gurus, industrial giants and philanthropists - Lord and Lady Pirrie, two of Belfast’s most important people, were also celebrating their birthdays.
William Pirrie was born on May 31, 1847, and his wife Margaret (nee Carlisle) born on the same day a decade later in 1857.
To commemorate this unique ‘Day to Remember’ in 1911 the Titanic Belfast visitor attraction and S.S. Nomadic have introduced a White Star Premium Pass offering the ultimate Titanic experience with three tickets for one price.
Visitors can now enjoy the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience together with the SS Nomadic, and an award-winning Discovery Tour.
Full details are at www.titanicbelfast.com