OBEDIENCE is an out-of-fashion virtue. But it certainly saved
the life of Fr Frank Browne, as I discovered last week, when I took
my grandson to Belfast to visit the impressive museum dedicated to
the ship that is one of the great legendsin the long history of men
- in which women and children mainly do not come first - and the
Titanic Belfast teaches visitors a great deal more than
the story of the great ship that has become both a monument to
humankind's technological achievement, and also to our hubris.
Our visit came a few days before the soundand fury over the news
that, as part of the Good Friday peace agreement, letters were sent
to suspected terrorists, promising that they were not being
prosecuted for earlier offences. Peace momentarily felt fragile in
But this museum has political lessons to teach. The first was
that, at the turn of the 20th century, Belfast was one of the great
jewels in the British imperial crown. The world capital for
shipbuilding, rope-making and linen, Belfast was the
fastest-growing city in the Empire. No wonder the British wanted to
hang on to the north of an island that was otherwise plagued by
famine and rural poverty.
Titanic Belfast carries visitors on a stirring ride
through a construction of extraordinary scale and extravagance. It
starts with the cramped spaces in which workers crouched for 11
hours a day to hammer rivets into the plates of the
Titanic's hull. And it ends with the surprisingly high
standard of the third-class cabins, and the elegance of the
Throughout are dotted the photos of a trainee Jesuit, Frank
Browne, who had been given a first-class ticket for the maiden
voyage from Belfast to Southampton, Cherbourg, and then to
Queenstown (now Cobh) in the south of Ireland.
In 1912, the Jesuit student, three years from ordination, was a
keen amateur photographer.He compiled an extensive collection of
the only extant pictures of passengers in third class, strolling
along the decks, and the sumptuous accommodation in first class.
His was the very last photo of the Titanic, taken as it
He could have been on board. On the first leg of the voyage, he
was befriended by a wealthy American couple, who offered to buy him
a ticket for the full Transatlantic crossing. The young Jesuit sent
a Marconigram from the ship to his superior to ask permission. His
Provincial, fear-ful perhaps of his young charge's fate in the
flesh-pits of New York, replied with four frosty words: "Get off
that ship." Fr Browne carried the message, folded in his wallet,
for the rest of his life.
The world has changed, just as Belfast has. Today, the city is
almost unrecognisable, economically and emotionally, from the time
I was a reporter there at the height of the Troubles. The return of
peace and prosperity to the province - and the obedience to
self-interest among its inhabitants - is what convinces me that the
recent political flurry will blow over.
A Catholic taxi-driver took us to the museum, and a Protestant
drove the return. Both were voluble in their concurrence that peace
is here to stay. Odd that the disaster of the Titanic
should leave such a legacy, a century on.