Belfast Maritime History
Belfast originally grew from shipping and trade centred on it’s harbour with a long history of shipbuilding. Considerable investment has been made in recent yeas to rejuvenate the areas around the harbour/ docklands with new apartments, hotels, restaurants, entertainment facilities and the promotion of the Maritime Mile harbour walk.
Belfast also features a range of public sculptures in commemoration of it’s maritime history. A number of the sculptures dotted around the city are listed below.
The Masts are arguably Belfast’s most striking piece of sculpture reflecting the maritime history of the city.
Situated on the east side of Donegall Place they rise to a majestic height of 6.2 metres.
The eight copper-clad structures represent 8 ships built in Belfast. The most famous, the Titanic stands closest to the City Hall. Also named are her sister ships the Olympic, the Nomadic and the Britannic as well as the Celtic, the Traffic and the Laurentic.
Each one weighs 3 tons and they are illuminated at night. With the passing of time the copper will oxidise and turn pale green which will correspond to the domes of the City Hall.
The Masts were erected in 2011 in this busy thoroughfare to remind locals and visitors of Belfast’s proud ship-building tradition.
Perhaps the most poignant reminder of Belfast’s shipping history is the memorial erected in honour of those who perished on the RMS Titanic in April 1912.
A resolution passed by Belfast City Council on 1st May 1912, agreed that a public sculpture should be erected in the grounds of the City Hall. Sir Thomas Brock (1847-1922) from Worcester, England was engaged to design a piece of work reflecting the general heart-ache felt by the city on the sinking of this mighty ship with so many lives lost.
Donations were received from the general public, from Harland and Wolff (the Belfast ship makers), the White Star Line (owners of the Titanic) and from the Andrews family (see Thomas Andrews, the ill-fated ship’s designer).
The life-size sculpture was unveiled on 26th June 1920 by Field Marshal Viscount French (after a delay due to WW1).
A female figure, the personification of death, stands on a stone plinth. She is looking down as two mermaids hold a drowned victim out of the waves. In her hand is a black laurel wreath. The figures are carved from white Carrara marble. There are two bronze water fountains on either side of the plinth.
In 2012 15 bronze plaques were attached to a 9m plinth in the memorial garden. These list, in alphabetical order, the names of the 1,512 victims of the tragedy. This is known as the Belfast List.
The Flying Angel
Close to St Joseph’s Church at Prince’s Dock is the sculpture of the Flying Angel. Made of bronze and stainless steel, the angel ‘flies’ from the bow of a wooden ship. She was designed by Maurice Harron from Derry.
The Flying Angel is situated beside the Mission to Seafarers’ Hall. This charitable organisation was founded in England in 1856 by the Rev John Ashley. Its aim is to provide for the material and spiritual needs of sailors. Today the Mission has branches throughout the world.
The Angel can be viewed as a symbol of guidance and protection for all those travelling on the waves as well as bringing comfort to families on land. Hence its location in the heart of Belfast’s old Sailortown.
Situated at the entrance to the Dr Pitt Memorial Park on the Newtownards Road, is this artwork comprised of three figures. They represent flat-capped workers returning home from a day’s work at the nearby shipyard.
Set against a backdrop of Harland and Wolff’s famous cranes, Samson and Goliath, they evoke memories of past days when Belfast was a noted ship building town. At its peak Harland and Wolf employed over 30,000 men. The statues were designed by Irish artist Ross Wilson. They were unveiled on 28th March 2012.
“This sculpture celebrates the legacy of shipbuilding in Belfast, the hopes, the dreams, the achievements by generations of working men, yardmen”Ross Wilson Belfast Telegraph 28th March 2012
The Park itself is named in honour of local doctor, John Pitt, who worked tirelessly for the people of east Belfast.
The Kit is the brainchild of English sculptor Tony Stallard. It was inspired by the Air-fix modelling kits of his boyhood.
The 3.5m tall bronze structure is a scaled-down replica of the component parts of the Titanic. The work is placed in the Abercorn Basin in the Titanic Quarter, not far from where the Titanic itself was built. The fact that it is composed of bits of the ship waiting to be constructed echoes Belfast’s ship-building industry.
Close by The Kit are the Buoys. While striking, they are not actual works of art but obsolete navigational aids. They were presented to Belfast City Council in 1983 by the Commissioner of Irish Lights.
The buoys are around 80 years old and each one weighs 3 tons. Made of thick steel plates riveted together, the hollow buoys were filled with air so that they could float. They were used to mark out a safe channel for ships entering the Port of Belfast.
They were first displayed for years in the Cathedral Gardens adjacent to St Anne’s Cathedral on Donegall Street. However, after restoration in 2019, the Buoys were relocates to the Titanic Quarter.
Outside the iconic Titanic Building is the life-size diving female figure known as Titanica.
The three quarters of a ton bronze sculpture is the creation of Rowan Gillespie. Graceful and cruciform in shape, the artist hopes that she will inspire hope and positivity in all who view her.
Titanica is perched on top of a rectangular riveted block, perhaps representing the practical industrial ship-building process, while she herself is the spirit of the sea. The statue was unveiled on 27th March 2012.
The latest installation at the Titanic Quarter to honour and recall Belfast’s immense contribution to ship-building is the Soundyard.
It is designed to resemble the sounds of work at Harland and Wolff shipyard. Hollow iron pipes are suspended in a circle and when someone walks underneath a mechanism is activated knocking the pipes into each other. The resulting sound is an echo of the constant clanging of hammers on metal which emanated from the shipyard.
The structure is the work of a team of architects Hannah Wilson, Matthew Kernan and Eunan Deeney. Each element of the design is also completely recyclable. Soundyard is located on the site of an old brass foundry and Kelly’s Coal yards close to the banks of the Lagan on the Maritime Mile.
Situated near the entrance to Belfast Port on the Dargan Road is a stainless steel sculpture of a seahorse.
The work was commissioned in 2013 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first quay built in the town. This was constructed in High Street on the banks of the River Farset in 1613.
The seahorse is supposed to represent health, protection and recovery. The German- born Ralf Sander (a Reader in Fine Art at the University of Ulster) used this idea to create an 8m seahorse sculpture. The seahorse rests on a black column designed as an enlarged shipping bollard. The seahorse is on the north side of Belfast Lough.
The seahorse is one of the emblems of Belfast. Two of the creatures feature on the city’s coat of arms designed when Belfast gained town status from King James 1 in the seventeenth century.
The only coinage at this time was tradesmen’s tokens, made by Belfast’s first merchants. It is claimed that many of these tokens were imprinted with a seahorse motif (though we have been unable to verify this from Benn’s account of the early coinage in the town).
Other examples of seahorses in reference to Belfast can be found in the entrance way to Sinclair Seaman’s Church, on the Presbyterian Assembly building and in the recently opened Grand Central Hotel. The Royal Belfast Academical Institution founded in 1814, has a Seahorses Mini-Rugby Club. You will find representations of seahorses throughout the city – not least on parking bollards.
For more information on the shipbuilding industry in Belfast, a trip to the Titanic Building is of course a must.
However, another interesting place to visit is The Belfast Barge. Floating on the River Lagan near the Queen’s Bridge. The Barge is owned by the Lagan Legacy organisation which aims to preserve and share our local maritime history.
“A Cargo of History”
The Belfast Barge is home to an interactive maritime museum that uses authentic artefacts and oral history recordings to tell the story of Belfast’s illustrious seagoing and industrial heritage”.
You can also enjoy coffee and snacks while looking out on the water. The Belfast Barge is also very dog friendly!
A beautiful day for a walk around Belfast Harbour & Marina with views of the Cave Hill, Belfast City and the Titanic Museum
A walk with Scotty around Belfast’s Sailortown, the Lagan side, the Big Fish, Queen’s Square and Clarendon Dock
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