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A fruitful legacy from disaster

07 March 2014

Peace and prosperity have transformed Northern Ireland, says Paul Vallely

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 sea.

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 the province.

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 first-class suites.

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 left Queenstown.

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.

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