Thomas Patrick Dillon was a cleaner in the engine room of the SS Titanic as it sailed from Queenstown to New York in April 1912. Originally born of Irish parents in Liverpool, he had been working for some time in Belfast. When the Titanic began to sink, Dillon helped passengers get onto the lifeboats. As the ship went under the water so did he. He surfaced and was picked up by a lifeboat. He was one of the few engineers to survive the sinking. His story, and his misery, didn’t end there. In the evidence collected afterwards Dillon was fingered as the sailor who, according to one lady passenger travelling first class, had arrived in the lifeboat ‘drunk’, with a bottle of brandy. Dillon was thrown into the bottom of the boat, and the brandy thrown overboard. Dillon said that at this point he passed out, and when he woke there were two sailors’ bodies on top of him.
The slight cast on Thomas Dillon’s ungentlemanly conduct tells us about one myth of the Titanic – that proper behaviour and steadfastness in the face of death were used to make the devastation more acceptable. Because of this incident, Dillon was the only member of the crew from Belfast to be asked to give evidence at the inquiry. Preserving myths of respectability was a way to make the disaster heroic. So Dillon’s brandy had to be chucked overboard, and the board of inquiry had to be reminded of his lowly status as a member of the engineering crew. In its report the same board would insist that third class passengers were not discriminated against in getting access to lifeboats, despite the fact that 97% of first class female passengers were saved, while only 46% of third class female passengers were saved. What was important was that the band played on.
Today the Titanic is a by-word for stoicism and bravery in the face of an awful fate. In Belfast it is now being used as a symbol of a great, lost industrial age, when the city was the hub of a global, seafaring economy. Recently on the Lower Newtownards Road a scheme to decommission loyalist murals used an image of the Titanic as a replacement for paramilitary culture. Honouring the work done by thousands of men and women, reminding communities of how they came to be where they are, is a good thing. But is it possible that we can also remember the way that Thomas Patrick Dillon was treated after the Titanic sank? Or can we remember the men and women who died, in what are now called industrial accidents, because of working conditions at the yard? Or the men who are still dying today of asbestosis, a hidden legacy of Belfast’s heavy industrial age still scarring their lungs? And do we dare remember the sectarianism of the yard in which Titanic was built?
If those in charge of the new Titanic Quarter have their way we’ll remember none of this. It suits their purposes for the Titanic to be replicated harmlessly, as if it were a symbol of an easy, agreed past. The history of the shipyard will be turned into a ghost, haunting the city in which it was once the centre of economic energy. If the architects’ plans are to be taken as serious, then the Titanic will become a computer-generated fantasy, enclosed within a museum. And the museum will be enclosed within what the shipyard always was – an entrepreneurial venture. Harland and Wolff were originally two foreign investors who saw a good opportunity in Belfast. Titanic Quarter is an invitation for the same thing to happen again, though this time nothing so tangible as a ship will be produced.
Titanic Quarter will redevelop Queen’s Island. According to Peter Robinson, when he was still regional Development Minister in the Assembly Executive, the place ‘if left, would rapidly become an eyesore’. So there’ll be bars and cafes, research centres for Queen’s University, and parts of the shipyard, such as the Titanic’s and the Olympic’s docks, the pump house and the drawing room where Titanic was designed, will be kept. The publicity says that ‘their preservation in Titanic Quarter will give future generations access to celebrated historical assets’. Even when they’re celebrated they’re made into ‘assets’ – when economics meets heritage it’s always an awkward moment. The truth is that these are listed buildings and protected structures, so everything else has to be thrown up around them. Titanic Quarter has little to do with what actually went on in the shipyard, and even less to do with the history of the city. If it’s a monument to anything it’s that this city has too often allowed capitalism to swamp its people, and then persuade them to be proud of the results, because that’s their culture. Titanic Quarter is about building more waterfront apartments and about providing a place for new technology and financial services firms to base themselves until cheaper labour markets take them somewhere else.
Thomas Patrick Dillon’s story won’t be part of it. There will be no room for such ‘eyesores’ of the past. Even the Titanic, according to the architects’ dreams, will be there only as a holograph, masking the economic activity behind it which has nothing to do with Belfast and its lived history, everything to do with the circulation of money through Belfast. More jobs are always welcome – but the pretence that it’s all done to honour our heritage is a piece of developer’s opportunism. The high-rise offices and apartments which will rise up on Queen’s Island will be a sign of how the city’s culture is being lost in banality, not saved for posterity. Titanic Quarter say all the right things; they want to add to the ‘renaissance’ of Belfast, they see cultural and social benefits. But the Titanic for them is what they call ‘a new brand emerging on the horizon’. From heritage to brand name; this gives the game away. The Titanic is remembered for something else – its hubris, its unsinkability. Apt then that the language used by the developers should be haunted by the iceberg, ‘emerging on the horizon’, since they want to turn the ship, and all it might mean, into a useful ghost.
[The Vacuum, 2003]