Titanic Port by Alf McCreary

‘Titanic Port, a new book celebrating 400 years of Belfast Harbour, was launched today (Monday Nov. 8th) in Belfast Harbour Office. Written by the award-winning journalist and author Alf McCreary, and commissioned by Belfast Harbour Commissioners, the book tells the story of those who built the Harbour and, in turn, laid the foundations for Belfast’s emergence as a major urban and commercial centre.

Three-years in the making, the book is based on unprecedented access to the Harbour’s records, dating back to 1613 when King James I authorised the construction of a small wharf on the river Lagan. The book also contains over 700 illustrations, including many previously unseen photographs and paintings from the Harbour’s archives, as well as panoramic views of modern Belfast and the port.

A central theme of the book is the intimate relationship between Belfast and its Harbour, how the Commissioners were instrumental in bringing shipbuilding to Belfast and, in particular, how they helped ensure that Titanic and her sister ships were built on Queen’s Island. 

Speaking at the event, the current Chairman of Belfast Harbour, Len O’Hagan, said:

“In the last decade Belfast has rediscovered its waterfront through developments such as Titanic Quarter and the Waterfront Hall. People are also rediscovering that this city’s prosperity is intrinsically tied up in its maritime history and future.


“As Chairman of Belfast Harbour I read this book with some trepidation, because it throws into such sharp relief the vision and commercial acumen of the merchants, engineers, industrialists, shipyard workers and dockers who created both Belfast and its Harbour. It’s quite an act to live up to!

“It is, however, an amazing story and one which I know ‘Titanic Port’ does justice to. This is a beautiful book which will be enjoyed by anyone who has a connection with Belfast or an interest in maritime history.”

At just over 400 pages long, ‘Titanic Port’ follows the development of the Jacobean and Georgian port which was barely navigable due to Belfast Lough’s treacherous mudbanks and sandbanks. Without the creation of a navigable channel over the centuries by successive Harbour Authorities, it is arguable that Carrickfergus might have become Ulster’s main seaport. 

The book also details how Belfast Harbour Commissioners brought shipbuilding to Belfast and their investment in the Thompson Dry Dock where the Titanic, Olympic and Britannic were fitted out. Costing almost the same price as the ship itself, the dock was the largest of its kind in the world, specifically built to help Harland & Wolff secure the contract from the ships’ owners, the White Star Line.

The book also examines Belfast Harbour’s vital role during both the First and Second World Wars, how the Harbour Estate escaped the worst of the ‘Troubles’ and its recent re-emergence as a major economic driver for Northern Ireland’s economy. It also catalogues the social history of Belfast and how it was influenced by the port and, in particular, Sailortown.

The author, Alf McCreary, said:

“Titanic Port has been a considerable challenge. I’ve deliberately set out to write a comprehensive history, but I’ve also tried to capture the personalities and anecdotes which resonate so readily throughout Belfast Harbour Estate.

“There are too many to mention in detail, but the book is full of characters such as Buck Alec, who kept two live lions in a cage near his North Belfast house, Alexander Mitchell, the blind 19th Century engineer who pioneered screw-piling and C.S. Lewis whose family shipyard in Belfast built a ship named Titanic over 20-yeras before her more famous namesake was launched. 

“There are also, of course, the great personalities associated with the Titanic and I’ve looked at how Belfast’s relationship with the ship has changed. The generation which built Titanic had to contend with the Great Depression and two world wars, so it’s hardly surprising that her memory faded into the background. Today, through Titanic Quarter, however, their descendants have realised that Titanic’s legacy is a potent symbol which should be celebrated and honoured.

“How Belfast Harbour developed shaped the way Belfast itself developed. If the Harbour Commissioners had, for example, decided to focus shipbuilding in Co. Antrim rather than Co. Down, North Belfast, not East Belfast, would have become synonymous with shipbuilding. Likewise, if the Commissioners hadn’t encouraged the development of an aerodrome and an aircraft factory it’s unlikely whether Bombardier or the George Best Belfast City Airport would be part of modern Belfast.

“In short, if Belfast Harbour had failed to create a modern, navigable port which actively attracted industry, Belfast could have remained a relatively insignificant provincial town.”

The event was also attended by Conor Murphy, the Minister for Regional Development who has responsibility for ports policy:

“Our island’s reliance on imports and exports means that ports are indisputably the cornerstone of the economy and day-to-day life; everything from clothes to computers, food and fertiliser comes via sea.

“As ‘Titanic Port’ so amply demonstrates, however, Belfast Harbour is much more than just a logistical transit centre. Its longevity and track record as a catalyst for growth have made it part of the very fabric of Belfast, an institution which has and will continue to serve the wider public interest.”

 ‘Titanic Port’ is currently on sale at all good book shops priced £25. It can also be purchased online at www.titanicport.com The book was produced by Dr. Claude Costecalde of Booklink and designed by Wendy Dunbar.