Weeds are already growing where the aristocrats of Belfast’s Protestant working class built and launched the doomed Titanic — and more than 1,700 other vessels — in one of the greatest shipbuilding yards in the world.
Harland and Wolff will this week complete ship number 1,742 — its last — bringing to a close a century and a half of maritime history. Not everyone will be glad to see it go, but few Catholic tears will be shed.
Decades of decline have reduced a workforce from 35,000 60 years ago, to fewer than 200. The yard will now concentrate on general engineering with a shifting and contract-based workforce.
The yard had a fierce reputation for aggressive unionism. Harland and Wolff workers downed tools to protest against both the 1974 power-sharing experiment negotiated at Sunningdale and the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement.
The son of a Catholic man forced out of the yard when his fellow workers discovered he was non-Protestant said that while he “took no pleasure” in anyone being laid off, the yard had been feather-bedded long enough.
The man’s father had suffered a similar fate to many other Catholics who got work at the yard. Once his religion was known, he was stripped of his clothes, beaten and thrown into the river Lagan to swim for his life as his erstwhile colleagues threw red-hot metal rivets after him — the so-called “Belfast confetti.”
Plans are in hand to develop apartments and office blocks in the sprawling acres that now hold only rusting sheds. It will be called the Titanic Quarter, cashing in on the fact it was the birthplace of the ill-fated liner.
Many famous Belfast Protestants have family connections with the yard, including ex-Manchester United star George Best, singer Van Morrison, and flautist James Galway.
In World War II, the yard turned out more than 130 naval vessels, including six aircraft carriers and more than 100 merchant ships.
Since the war, the story has been one of decline as attempts to diversify into oil tankers and oil-drilling ships failed to overcome difficult market conditions.
For most of its existence, its workforce was overwhelmingly Protestant, leading nationalists to condemn it as a bastion of sectarian discrimination. Its two giant gantry cranes, Samson and Goliath, are plainly visible across the city from Catholic West Belfast, traditionally an area of high unemployment.