The following article appeared in The Irish News and was written by Laura Murphy
Belfast recently saw the opening of its own ‘floating museum’, in the form of MV Confiance, which recreates the story of the River Lagan and Northern Ireland’s industrial and maritime heritage. LAURA MURPHY steps on board for a tour
“BELFAST is remembered for the two Ts – the troubles and the Titanic,” says Charlie Warmington.
The latter, he adds, is something he often refers to as a “weapon of mass distraction”, because the hype around and transfixion on the famous ship detracts from the significance of the other boats and infrastructure built in Belfast, on the many industrial sites that could never have existed save for the presence of one vital natural resource – the River Lagan.
Not only was Harland and Wolff – once ranked as the biggest shipyard in the world – dependant on it, but so were the likes of its rivals during the late 1800s, Workman and Clarke.
The Lagan also facilitated important industries such as Belfast Ropeworks Company, Sirocco (which built ventilation units for said ‘distractive’ ship, the Titanic), and Belfast Gasworks.
Charlie is research administrator at Lagan Legacy, a social enterprise formed in 2002 to preserve and promote Belfast’s maritime history and heritage, and I meet him on board a newly opened vessel which was purchased specifically to be transformed into a floating museum that would visually capture the essence of the history of the River Lagan.
He believes the name of this boat – the Barge MV Confiance, which is French for ‘confidence’ – is wholly appropriate, given that confidence was something which everyone involved with its development had to show.
“Until Friday January 21 this year when we opened it, I still couldn’t believe it was going to happen,” he says.
Lagan Legacy purchased the 600-tonne Dutch barge, which is 54.71 metres long, 6.6 m wide, and around five m high, in 2006 and sailed it into Belfast – a feat in itself.
“They basically welded down the hatches, put a lot of ballast in her and she came over as a submarine,” Charlie reveals.
“She’s a long river vessel, she would just crack in two unless they kept her down in the water.
“The calculations were phenomenal; you needed enough water to float her, the speed so that her side thrusters and rudders would steer her, and it had to be the right depth of water, yet it couldn’t be so deep that she wouldn’t get under the bridge.”
Against the odds, the three-man crew successfully sailed the blue and white vessel to where she is moored at Lanyon Quay.
Lagan Legacy secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and adapted her into the state-of-the-art floating cultural centre and maritime museum that she now is.
Named after north Belfast former Harland and Wolff worker George McAllister, who supplied most of the photographs in the exhibition, as well as a wealth of information and memories about shipyard life, the museum was officially opened on January 21 – which is bizarrely, also the date of George’s wife Teresa’s birthday.
Seventy-nine-year-old George began his 45-year-long career in the rigging department of the shipyard at the tender age of 15.
“It was a brilliant time – the camaraderie, the boys down there, acting the fool,” he says, his eyes misting over at the recollections.
“I have my own grandsons and I try to tell them (about the history of the Lagan) – they never knew what ship building was like and there’s a lot more like that who don’t know. They should be told, to let them know just what went on in Belfast at that time.”
Stepping inside the barge is like stepping back in time; from the quiet hum of the engines, the low ceiling, and the tinny echo of your footsteps as you walk down the stairs to where the museum is housed on the lower deck.
The boat also boasts a multi-use space which can be used for temporary or visiting exhibitions, and as a flexible theatre, conference, cinema and music facility. (There was even a hen party here a few weeks ago!)
A cafe is due to open in the vessel next month.
The actual exhibition, which comprises touch screens, interpretive panels, and interactive displays, is entitled: ‘The greatest story never told’.
It’s an extremely impressive collection of artefacts. But it’s the way in which it captures the sights, the sounds, the very essence of what life working on the Lagan must have been like, that makes it such a fascinating, enlightening place to visit.
You can pull out drawers and marvel at maritime menus, showing the kinds of food served on board the ocean liners, and the typed correspondence between Lord William Pirrie, who was Harland and Wolff chairman between 1895 and 1924, and companies, quoting details of dimensions, materials and prices needed to build ships for them.
You can press buttons which sound the noises of drills, welders, hammers, and rivets, sounds that would have been heard daily by workers in the shipyards.
There are several television and computer screens, which, at the lightest touch, will show recorded interviews with shipyard workers and images of newspaper clippings, and quite a novel facility that allows you to learn the ‘berth day’ of the ships built on your own birthday (I’m delighted to discover that of five or six built on my own, a supertanker named Olympic Brilliance was built in the year closest to that of my own birth).
Charlie points out that every single day of the year except Christmas Day saw at least two ships being built in Belfast, with some having up to a dozen constructed.
One display poses the challenge of finding out what kinds of structures were or weren’t built in Belfast. And from the range of things such as trains, wind turbines, and the famous Churchill tank (“one of the most famous fighting vehicles the world has ever known,” Charlie says), it transpires that the only kind not to be built in Belfast, ever, was a submarine.
With his typical sharpness, Charlie observes this is rather poignant, pointing out that in some ways Titanic herself became a submarine – the first to be built in Belfast – when she sank on her 1912 maiden voyage.
But Belfast certainly deserves its place on the world stage it terms what was built here.
SS Canberra, the famous ocean liner which also served as a troop ship in the Falklands War, was built by Harland and Wolff at a cost of £16 million.
The mammoth ship was nicknamed the Great White Whale, and there are rigging maps, showing the design of the ship, showcased in the MV Confiance’s exhibition.
It wasn’t only ships and boats that were constructed at Harland and Wolff; in 2001 the company was commissioned to give Dublin’s famous landmark, the Ha’penny bridge, a major face-lift.
They also built Londonderry’s Foyle Bridge in 1980.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the Harland and Wolff workmen made everything they needed themselves in the line of desks, chairs – and even guitars, which they carefully crafted to amuse themselves during their lunch hour at the height of Beatle-mania during the 1960s!
Another display shows the typical ‘workwear’ of a 1950s shipyard employee – sensible looking but seemingly unpractical lace-up shoes, navy jacket and beige shirt, alongside the altogether more attention-grabbing get-up of a 21st century workman, namely red overalls, boots and fluorescent flak jacket.
There’s a ‘Samson and Goliath’ exhibition, dedicated to Belfast’s giant cranes, or, as they’re referred to, the ‘Giant’s Causeway’ of the city, and a model of the Sea Quest oil rig, which was the first drilling rig to discover oil in the North Sea, and was built by Harland and Wolff for BP at a cost of £3.5 million and launched on January 8, 1966.
Charlie admits he has a particular fondness for this replica: “I love her,” he smiles.
It’s model proportions even show a seemingly small Belfast City Hall in the background, to convey how huge this structure was.
(It was 320 feet high, weighed 150,000 tonnes, and consisted of three legs, each being 35 feet in diameter and 160 feet long).
Charlie may describe himself as a “hack”, and refuse to apply the term historian to himself, but it’s obvious that his passion for ships and all things nautical makes him the perfect candidate for his involvement in Lagan Legacy and MV Confiance.
In his younger days, he came close to quitting university to take up a training post with the British Shipping Federation , and today he is able to describe in detail the seafaring successes of his “favourite ship” – The Mullugh.
But first and foremost comes his desire and dedication to seeing the wonderful legacy of the River Lagan, and the many industries it once supported, preserved.
“Without the Lagan none of that could have happened,” he says.
“But the weird, weird, weird thing is – it shouldn’t have happened. The Lagan was shallow, meandering, it wasn’t just difficult to navigate, it was dangerous to navigate. There are sandbanks, mudbanks.
“The water we’re floating on at the minute – we call it the industrial artery to the world and that’s what it became.”
n The museum on board The Barge MV Confiance is open daily from 10am to 4pm, and is accessible to all ages. Guided tours are available. Group visits and school bookings are welcome and bespoke programmes can be planned. For more information contact [email protected].com or phone 028 9023 2555.