06/11/2012 07:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Northern Ireland: Terra Titanicus (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

This is the first in a five-part series about Northern Ireland.

The only thing Belfast does in moderation is moderation.

Always, it has been Brobdingnagian in spirit. Always, it has lived large.

Once it was the largest linen producer in the world. And had the largest ropeworks. It was the largest manufacturer of fizzy drinks; largest shirt maker; had the largest flax machine works; largest tobacco factory; largest handkerchief factory. Jonathan Swift, when he was living at Lilliput Cottage near the bottom of the Limestone Road in Belfast, imagined the nearby Cavehill Mountain a sleeping giant. Big in Belfast is the roar. Annalisa Wray of Belfast holds "The Guinness Book of World Records" for the loudest shout on Earth, a deafening 119-decibel effort.

My friend Virginia Moriarty, born and bred in Belfast, has a theory, which she espouses while
I pay a visit. She calls it the "Second Child Syndrome." Throughout the 16th century, the Noble
families of the British Empire (Barons, Viscounts, Earls and Dukes) would grant their first son title and estate inheritance. Second sons were out of luck. But since 1603, when a victory
over the Irish in Ulster allowed Britain complete control of Ireland, the Lords of Scotland and
Wales and other parts of the Empire would often send their second sons to the remote, rocky,
incommoding land to stake claims.

And, these second sons, denied the attention or privilege of their older brothers, set out to prove themselves. Pop psychologists call it an ingrained inferiority complex that drives a compulsion to do things bigger and better, often, though, without self-examination. Sigmund Freud said the Irish were "the one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever." When I ask Virginia, who happens to be second in birth order, about this she says there are many manifestations of the Second Child Syndrome, and certainly over-compensation is one; equivocation is another.

"I used to be indecisive; now I'm not sure," she volunteers.

Whatever the reasons, Belfast remunerated with bigness. Beyond-the-pale amplitude. It was a town with few natural resources; everything from coal to timber to iron had to be imported. And yet for a time, a century ago, it was the world's leading industrial city, anchored by the biggest shipyard in the world, and there it created the biggest man-made moving object in history: the ocean liner Titanic.

Writer Andrew Wilson in a 2012 article in "Smithsonian Magazine," speculated that "Titanic" is the third-most widely recognized word in the world, trailing only "God" and "Coca-Cola." Daniel Allen Butler said the same thing in his 1998 book, "Unsinkable." My reaction: Really? Outflanking 9/11 or Michael Jackson or JFK (of Irish descent), Barry Obama (his great-great-great grandfather was Irish), Bono, Van Morrison or Guinness? What about Noah's Ark?

Regardless, I would hazard that most, until recently, would not have associated the city of Belfast with the Titanic. Certainly Southampton, where most of its passengers made way into the fatal ship, or Liverpool, where it was registered, and which was emblazoned high on its stern to be seen in a raft of recreations and films, including James Cameron's little contribution. Or Cherbourg, where it made its second stop and some of the wealthiest and best known passengers boarded. Or even Queenstown (Cobh), in the south of Ireland, its final dock, where a large number of third class passengers emigrating to the United States fed into the bowels, sort of like the lower-deck passengers on an A380 today.

And then there is Newfoundland. The doomed ship was in near constant communication with Cape Race on its Marconi wireless prior to hitting the iceberg as passengers passed along greetings to folks all over North America; and Cape Race coordinated the rescue efforts with other vessels after the incident, just 300 miles off the Newfoundland coast. So, at the end of the day, Belfast was not a big part of the popular story, its coordinates invisible to most narratives.

And after the disaster, Belfast went quiet. Titanic was a dream not remembered.

Beforehand, the city was unbelievably proud of what it had created in the Titanic and its sister ship, Olympic. Some 15,000 shipbuilders won a living fashioning the "unsinkable" ship, something aloof to weather, with the strength to ignore such bagatelles as icebergs. It was not just the biggest but the most luxurious liner ever willed to existence, incorporating the most advanced technologies of the time. Belfast beat the world. It was their place, their time.

It's easy to imagine the inflated chests, the crow and brag that infused the city on April 2, 1912
when, at 8 p.m., Titanic's giant screws thrashed through the waves and the ship blinked its farewell as it vanished into nothingness.

But, with the unfathomable death of the Titanic, swallowed by the sea as if a pill, accusations were leveled at all parties, including the shipbuilders and their materials, the design, the size of the rivets and general craftsmanship. The reply was, "There was nothing wrong with the ship when she left." But, again with the pop psychology, the second sons, under the pressing weight of conscience, felt ashamed and the Titanic was a subject not to be broached in Belfast for many, many years. Optimism and sense of purpose drained away like water from a punctured container. Greatness had passed.

Cut to the present. Now, it might be said, the city should be called Titanic Town. Just as James
Joyce jibed, "It would be a good puzzle would be to cross Ireland without passing a pub," it
would be a puzzle today to cross Belfast and not pass the word Titanic.

Somewhere along the way somebody had the bright idea of turning lemons (there were 16,000
on the Titanic) to lemonade, not only embracing the Belfast association with the tragedy, but turning the "built here" stamp into its main tourist magnet. It was an attitudinal sea change. Today the official slogan is "Our Place, Our Time," and the city is awash in exhibitions, tours, cruises, concerts, collectables, drinks (Titanic Tea, Titanic Whiskey and Titanic Quarter Ale), snacks (Titanic potato crisps) and folderol, all branded Titanic.

There is the Titanic Light Show, the Titanic Bike 'N' Boat tour, the Titanic iPad app, the Titanic suite at the Europa Hotel, the Titanic Road Rally, Titanic Triathlon, Titanic Cemetery tour. Down the road, at the Grand Opera House, "Titanic, the Musical" is playing. Even the grocery stores feature iceberg lettuce.

The cornerstone of the jamboree is Titanic Quarter, formerly Queen's Island, and the great display case is Titanic Belfast, an angular, silver-colored construction that some think suggests an iceberg rather than the bow of a mighty ship, as was intention. I mistakenly call the $150 million, ineluctably grand edifice a "museum," and am promptly chastised by one of the
staff: "It is not a museum. It is an experience." That approach might be because there is little
actually of Titanic to see in the building or even around town. On the whole, Belfast is more
about the spaces the Titanic left behind.

One, of course, is the 880 foot-long Thompson Graving Dock, where Titanic was hauled to check and clean its hull and fit the propellers. Standing on the edge of this naked 44-foot deep footprint one at last gets a sense of how huge this ship was, or at least it allows imagining. And Colin Cobb, a self-professed Titanorak who runs Titanic Walking Tours, brings it home sharing
that the dock could hold 21 million gallons of water, or, in terms better understood in Ireland,
168 million pints of Guinness.

But that's just it. Belfast is more about the idea of Titanic than the tangible. It's the absence that teases, inviting us to color in the book, to put ourselves in the story.

Continue to part two of this series.

Exploring Northern Ireland