Hamill’s Beat - Look up and marvel at Derry’s link to Titanic age

Austins Department store. (0704SL13)
Austins Department store. (0704SL13)

Sorry to mention the dreaded ‘T’ word. Last week we heard more than enough about Belfast’s Titanic attraction.

Other tragedies have long been forgotten, so what explains the enduring impact of the ‘unsinkable’ liner that sank on her maiden voyage?

Derry has a visual clue to the answer. Some people think it’s down to the big Hollywood films, but that’s only part of it. After all, what attracted them to the story in the first place?

Is it because it’s a morality tale of human pride being humbled by random ‘fate’?

The great novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy wrote that “The pride of life that planned her” was undone by what he called “The spinner of the years” who brought ship and iceberg together.

When the Titanic was built, the British Empire was at the height of its imperial power. The UK was an industrial powerhouse but the Victorian era had been drab (and socially unequal). The new century brought a new mood.

The old caution and conservatism was swept away on a flood tide of flamboyance, optimism and confidence.

It seemed there was no limit to what people could achieve. They only had to think big. This was reflected in popular architecture. The plainness and restrained scale of Victoriana gave way to a new Edwardian preference for showy extravagance.

Here in Derry, for instance, the shirt-making industry was booming and an amazing new building rose up in the Diamond. Shortly before construction of the Titanic began in Belfast, between 1904 and 1907 Austin’s new department store appeared. It was built to the extravagant design of local architect, Mathew Robinson.

Originally, an open well ran up through its floors, topped with a glass atrium.

Robinson wanted people to look up and marvel.

Next time you’re in the Diamond you too can look up and marvel at Derry’s greatest relic from the Titanic age.

Incidentally, local ‘legend’ has it that a slightly over-enthuastic tour guide once invited a group of Americans to admire the store’s fine staircase.

The famous staircase in the great ship itself was modelled on the one in the Derry store, he said!