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‘Titanic’s little sister’ back in service as Belfast’s latest tourist attraction

Nomadic Charitable Trust chairman Denis Rooney alongside the SS Nomadic in Belfast, where it has been opened to the public following a £9 million refurbishment. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

The Titanic is the ill-fated boat that just keeps giving to Belfast as another Titanic-themed visitor centre opened to the public in the city at the weekend. The SS Nomadic – “Titanic’s little sister” – which ferried first class passengers to the great ship just over 101 years ago has been restored after a £9 million refit project.

It is located at Hamilton dock within very short walking distance of the Titanic Belfast visitor centre and, according to businessman and former head of the International Fund for Ireland Denis Rooney, will “complement rather than compete” with that world attraction.

The Nomadic is quarter the size of the Titanic, which includes having one funnel rather than four, and while its scale is smaller it still contains some of the grandeur of the big ship. Both vessels were built side by side at Harland and Wolff Belfast shipyard and both were designed by Thomas Andrews who along with 1,501 passengers and crew perished on the Titanic.

Where the Titanic was just 13 days in service the Nomadic was a working vessel for 57 years from 1911 to 1968, and is now back in dry dock at its old home but still serving the public. It was brought back from France in 2006, taking seven years of hard work and fundraising to get to this second launching on Saturday.

Despite its humbler size Mr Rooney is confident it will attract more than 40,000 visitors each year to make it fully viable. Tickets cost £8.50 for an adult, £5 for a child and £22 for two adults and two children.

Mr Rooney, who is chairman of the Nomadic Charitable Trust which was responsible for the refurbishment, said that while the Titanic Belfast visitor centre towers above the Nomadic where it differs is in “it offers a real ship experience of the time”.

“I think the Nomadic complements the Titanic visitor centre which has been a huge success,” he added. “You can actually get a sense of having a genuine Titanic experience. But as well as that we have our own rich stories about the Nomadic, about the wars, about the crews, about the passengers…”

The Nomadic, the last remaining vessel of the old White Star Line, first sailed to Cherbourg in France where it was the tender to transport passengers to the Titanic on its one and only catastrophic voyage in April 1912. It later was the tender to cruise liners such as the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. It also served in both world wars as a troop carrier and mine sweeper.

In 1940 she played a leading part in the evacuation of thousands of people out of Cherbourg which was under siege by the German army. For more than 20 years up until the 1990s variously she was a floating restaurant, cinema, nightclub and casino on the Seine in Paris.

In fact it was that period in Paris that caused the most difficulty and expense. “Because some of the bridges on the River Seine were low the owners decided to decapitate or guillotine the two upper decks – the bridge deck and the flying bridge deck,” explained Mr Rooney.

“A huge part of our cost was restoring the upper decks and all the structural work that that entailed,” he added. That aspect of the work was carried out in Belfast by Harland and Wolff. The overall cost of the project was just over £9 million – £7 million recreating the boat as it was, and some £2 million for the work at the dock and surrounding area. This contrasts with the £90 million cost of its neighbouring attraction.

Visitors to the Nomadic are brought on a tour of the vessel lasting at least an hour and a quarter. They walk along the various decks and sit in the first class bar and reception area where the 142 passengers who embarked from Cherbourg were entertained before reaching the Titanic situated in deeper water. They experience the class systems of the period with a separate lounge and gangway for the 30 second class passengers who made that journey.


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