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Movie spurs a titanic interest in fated liner at ship's birthplace

Belfast, the city that gave birth to the Titanic, has been swept up in a wave of fascination with the ill-fated liner, inspired by James Cameron's epic disaster movie.

The film is packing movie theaters around the province, while Northern Ireland's two Titanic societies and the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the Titanic was built, have been swamped with inquiries about the ship.The upsurge of interest comes as no surprise to local Titanic experts, whose own absorption is akin to religious fervor. Some believe the city should be doing more to capitalize on its role in maritime history, to attract tourists.

"The film's success here is just phenomenal, and the Belfast connection is an important part of it," said Michael McAdam, managing director of the Yorkgate and Glengormley Movie Houses. "We've been sold out, even midweek, and it's brought elderly people who haven't been near a cinema in years back to the movies.

"I don't care what some critics say, the masses love it. We live in a troubled land, and building this ship was something to be proud of."

Harland and Wolff keeps its Titanic souvenirs, including the original plans, in its maritime heritage department, and the company's commemorative Titanic medal is much in demand.

Many local companies, some of which manufactured goods for the Titanic, such as Donacloney linen maker, Ewart Liddell, are benefiting from the market for Titanic products. Craigavon-based Market Growth International has commissioned 30 special lines, from scale models to gourmet foods eaten on board, for U.S. customers.

Douglas Carson, a founder member of the Ulster Titanic Society, formed five years ago and now boasting 200 members, thinks the province should be making more of its shipbuilding tradition.

"James Cameron spent tens of millions of pounds recreating the Titanic in Mexico, but we built the real thing, the biggest ship in the world at that time, and we have the archives, the sources and the sites," he said.

"We have a shipbuilding industry second to none but no maritime museum. There is one mumbled reference to Belfast in the film, but Thomas Andrews, the Titanic's chief designer, is a pivotal character.

"There are dozens of Titanic societies all over the world and we should be encouraging their members to come here. A ship like the Canberra would have made a superb floating museum, and that's exactly the type of thing we should be setting up in Belfast."

Former Belfast Lord Mayor Ian Adamson has already had positive reactions to his suggestion for a Titanic Day.

"Titanic was a pivotal event in world history, but it was also a huge part of Belfast social and industrial history," he said. "I have a special interest in Thomas Andrews' uncle, the then-managing director of Harland and Wolff, William James Pirrie, who like myself, was Lord Mayor of Belfast, and also came from the same village, Conlig."

Northern Ireland is full of anecdotes about the Titanic - such as the story of a Limavady man, Walter Hooper, who owes his existence to the fact that his father, Alec, got roaring drunk and didn't get to the port in time to board the vessel; or the beautiful dining room table in the Belfast Harbour Commission that also missed the boat.

Patrick Toms founded the Shannon Ulster Titanic Society in memory of his grandfather, Andrew John Shannon. Toms, who now lives in Bangor, County Down, was born in Cobh, County Cork, where his grandfather was one of the last passengers to board the Titanic.

"My grandmother told me the story of Titanic when I was a child," he said. "Later, both she and my mother committed suicide, I believe, because they were so badly affected by the tragedy."

This year Toms plans a special anniversary commemoration, complete with a reproduction of the last meal eaten by third-class passengers such as his grandfather.