Life

Nuala McCann: Titanic Belfast doesn't float my boat

Summer in the city, my friend has a visitor from England. What to do? They go to the world's largest Titanic visitor experience in Belfast. The new museum is six years old. Confession time... I've never been.

Over four million visitors can’t be wrong... can they?

"WHAT do you mean you haven't been?," asks my friend. It's like asking Parisians have they gone to the top of the Eiffel Tower, I argue.

It's a tourist thing. Foreigners go to the top to propose. The real Parisians stay under the tower for free, spread picnic rugs on the grass of the Champ de Mars and sip wine as they wait for the tower to light up and sparkle on the hour. It's magical.

Why pay for a view when, if you clamber up the steps in the Samaritaine shopping building in Paris, you get the best view of the city for free.

I digress. My friend took her friend to the Titanic experience. It cost £18.50 each.

"£18.50!," I shrieked. "You wuz robbed."

"Mmm," she said. "We wuz."

She did not really enjoy the mechanical ride around the old shipyard, not her thing. She should have gone to the Ulster Museum – it's free.

"Here's the problem," I said. "The problem is that it was a tragedy. it's the Titanic, it's a big boat that sank killing 1,500 people."

Mind you, over four million visitors can't be wrong ... they clearly love it. Me? A childhood scarred by the ancient Liverpool ferry and that black and white movie A Night to Remember and the sight of Leonardo di Caprio slipping off that life raft into the icy waters in the James Cameron blockbuster finished it for me.

Once, I took my young niece and nephew to a Titanic exhibition in Manchester and we each got a ticket with a passenger number. At the end, you found out if you lived or died.

They were young. It was traumatic. I drowned, they had to give up their pocket money to buy me a gin.

I have driven past the huge silver building countless times, I've just never peeped inside. I've never gone into Crumlin Road Gaol either.

Well, not since it has been reincarnated into a prime tourist attraction.

I've gone in when it was a proper jail and I covered court cases in the old courthouse when they brought the prisoners in via the connecting tunnel.

Now they're advertising 'Christmas in the Crum'. One December, as a young reporter, I was sent to cover a Christmas carol service in the prison. There I stood down below with my little shorthand notebook, as the men came out onto the balconies, leaned over and listened to The First Noél.

It wasn't funny, it was sad.

In Michael McLaverty's novel, Call My Brother Back, the writer describes looking over at the prison from the back of St Malachy's School and spotting a prisoner waving a handkerchief from a barred window.

Seventeen men were executed there. Now you can use it as a wedding venue, you can go to live music events and you can have a meal at the aptly named Cuffs restaurant.

It's like having a picnic on your granny's grave – the Day of the Dead is okay for the Mexicans, but leave me out.

Frankly, I'm spooked, but not by the ghost tour.

Some people argue that Belfast should be proud of its shipbuilding heritage and the fact that the great Titanic was built here and sailed majestically out of the city down the lough and into the history books when she hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage.

I know that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I know that our Troubles tours take us to places and events which we need to remember, even if we'd much rather forget.

Auschwitz is different again. It's a deeply sombre experience and one I'd never want to repeat. We went in the depths of winter when the snow was a foot deep and the abandoned watchtowers were stark silhouettes against the sky.

No bird song. I shiver still.

A famine ship? Yes, I'd visit that. The experience of actually going inside the hull of a boat and imagining the men, women and children, crushed into such a space in the darkness, makes the horror of the past more real.

But sorry, I couldn't imagine getting hitched in 'the Crum'. And, really sorry, but Titanic Belfast simply doesn't float my boat.

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