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Northern Ireland: The Search For The Titanic In Belfast (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

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This is the second in a five-part series about Northern Ireland. Read the first installment here.

While searching for Titanic I did find some memorabilia at Robinson's Bar on Great Victoria Street in Belfast. On the wall monitor, the one that in most pubs would be featuring a rugby or football match, the 1958 film "A Night to Remember" is unspooling. In a glass showcase is Philomena the Titanic Doll, reputed to have been found floating amongst wreckage in the aftermath of the disaster by one of the ships passing through the area some time later. Then there is an S.S. Titanic nameplate, supposedly from one of the lifeboats; and there is a White Star Line publicity booklet promoting both the Olympic and Titanic and their many upscale amenities (Turkish bath, dining salon, grand staircase). Other than that, the bar features oceans of Guinness.

Not far away the handsomely-styled palace of government, City Hall, is known as The Stone Titanic, nicknamed by William Pirrie, the chairman of Titanic builders Harlan and Wolff, because he often sent shipwrights from the yard -- plasterers, wood carvers, joiners, painters who were decking out the giant steamship -- to work on the building.

Pirrie was an original version of characters in the Final Destination films in that he was to sail on Titanic, but illness laid him low at the last minute, preventing him from joining the ship -- only to later die at sea while on a business tour of South America.

Pirrie's civic architectural confection -- it looks a bit like a giant wedding cake -- also has a Titanic Memorial located on its grounds, including a statue that pays tribute to 22 Belfast men who lost their lives on the ship (by way of comparison, some 549 from Southampton died.) A new adjacent memorial garden features 15 bronze plaques on a plinth listing a comprehensive catalogue of those lost on Titanic, though Dutch Uncles claim nobody really knows all who were on board as the record-keeping was hardly air-tight. (No sign of Rose DeWitt Bukater or Jack Dawson, though there was a Joseph Dawson, 23.)

Then there are Samson and Goliath, the twin yellow shipbuilding gantry cranes that dominate the Belfast skyline with the gitanic letters H & W telegraphing to anyone with a view. They look eerily like the invaders from World of the Worlds, or perhaps characters in Transformers. And they have a tenuous link to Titanic. They didn't exist in 1912, but they are owned and operated by Titanic builders Harland and Wolff, but are used today mostly for ship repair.

Another not-quite-Titanic-but-worthy-of-suggestion is the nearby SS Nomadic (all the White Star Line creations ended in "ic"). Titanic was operated by the Liverpool-based White Star Line, owned by American J.P. Morgan, and its last floating vessel was the Nomadic. It was built alongside Olympic and Titanic in Belfast in 1911 at Harland & Wolff, designed to tender the Gilded passengers out to the large liners too big to moor alongside the dock in Cherbourg. It was designed by Thomas Andrews, who also designed Titanic, and to insure a consistent quality experience for the higher-end clients, many of her interior fixtures and fittings were selfsame to Titanic, and were made and installed by the same craftsmen. It was, in short, a taxi, sort of like the Mercedes S350s that usher guests from the Hong Kong Airport to the downtown luxury hotels.

After Nomadic made its one tender to Titanic (carrying, among others, the industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim; America's richest man, John Jacob Astor; and the Denver socialite who would become known as "The Unsinkable Molly Brown"), she went on to serve in both World Wars, then returned to her original duties ferrying the well-heeled out to Cunard's Queen Elizabeth. Among her clients: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Madame Curie, Lord John Astor and Richard Burton with Liz Taylor. Her last ride was in November 1968.

Bought by a French businessman, she was converted into a floating restaurant and moored just opposite the Eiffel Tower from the early 1970s until 1999, when she was forced to close due to legislation change by the Paris port authorities.

In January 2006, Nomadic was purchased at auction by the Northern Ireland Department for Social Development, who returned her to Belfast. At the beginning of August 2009 Nomadic returned to her birthplace at the Hamilton Dock to undergo restoration.

Today she is more like an old shell than a breathing Titanic mini-me, and a tour is mostly about imagining the stain-glass, shiny brass, polished wood and fine appointments that are her future. But, it is a draw, and since she touched Titanic, it does feel, when running a hand along her sandpapered gunwales, that there is somehow a tingling reach back through time to the edge of tragedy.

There is one view that celebrating a tragedy of this scope with commercial tours, tributes and knick-knacks is somehow disrespectful and gauche, like grave dancing. But those who subscribe to George Santayana's trope, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," rationalize a nobleness in the exercise. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is built on a site where over 250,000 people were buried in 1994, and is now the major tourist attraction in the city. And it works. It does shock any visitor into some kind of awareness. The popular Tunnel Museum in Bosnia's capital is a keen reminder of the mid-'90s Siege of Sarajevo in which over 10,000 people, including children, were sniped or blown up. You can't leave without questioning the price of ethnic-based aggression.

But Titanic seems different. If anything, it is a crime of audacity, the nothing-succeeds-like-excess dynamic, another manifestation of the Second Child Syndrome, some say, over reaching to get the attention unreceived when young. Its modern analogue might be the brass behind "Too Big To Fail." Over and over the mantra with Titanic was "it is practically unsinkable." We heard that refrain with mortgage companies and banks in 2007.

So, it's time to check out the unmissable non-museum, the six-story high Titanic Belfast, the world's largest Titanic visitor attraction, whose four prows radiate from a glass core like the points of a white star. Even on a cloud-streaked day it sparkles, and cajoles, beside the Belfast Lough dockside where the 46,329-ton doomed vessel was built from 1909 to 1911. Bursting with attitude, there is a frozen-in-flight energy about the building, as though about to sail into the heavens. In the absence of the sacred for the ship Titanic, this is the new church. And it does seem the gamble is paying off. The place is packed. As I try to squeeze into one of the exhibits it is so crowded I'm tempted to yell, "Women and children first!"

It does, however, live up to promises of being an "experience." And, it is indeed moving, especially the Shipyard Roller Coaster, a dark ride that uses special effects, animations and full-scale reconstructions to recreate the reality of shipbuilding in the early 1900s. There are historical grace notes of recordings and re-enacted performances; video projections of actors in period costumes, pulling to the surface submerged filaments of the actual participants; interactive touch screens and quizzes. (I was disappointed to learn there was not a cursed mummy smuggled onboard by an unscrupulous art dealer.)

In one room a chilly piped-in breeze mimics deck-side the fateful night. The suspense is terrible, turning the corner to find what happens. Then there is a vertigo-inducing glass floor that allows stepping over high-definition imagery of Titanic today, its ghostly deck and taffrail almost touchable, as it rests two and half miles down in the benthos of the Atlantic. In all, it seems a giant paperweight holding down memories of the moment a grand escort descended from the world of the ideal.

The displays have a dignity unexpected. There are "authentic representations," however oxymoronic that may seem, in which models and elaborate CGI imagery illustrate the ship's opulent interior, including exact replicas of the first, second and third class cabins, and journeys through the dining areas, the ship's engine rooms and working interiors. It is a signal experience, and I am not at all ashamed to say I am transported, almost hypnotized, by its spot-lit renderings of the ship of dreams and the nightmares it passed.

And Belfast again is furiously alive with pride and optimism. It is full steam ahead, "Back to the Future," one more time in this city, home to the DeLorean Motor Company, which sank in 1982. Belfast is rising on the back of the most notorious wreck in history. Its ship has come in, it is hoped. And the brio can hardly be gainsaid. It is palpable and exhausting.

Suffering from Titanic fatigue I stop in a local pub and order a Gin & Titonic, the nightly special. Like its namesake, it goes down well.

Continue to part three of this series.

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