” Descendants of Captain William Pirrie and Eliza Morison Pirrie, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It gives me great pleasure, officially, to welcome you all to Belfast today, on behalf of the Lord Mayor of Belfast and Belfast City Council. I understand that many of you have travelled from as far afield as Australia, South Africa, USA, Canada, Bahamas and France especially to be here for this gathering – as well as from England, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and throughout Ireland.
Captain Pirrie is often forgotten, mainly because the family name does not exist here in Northern Ireland any more. This gathering is to remember and acknowledge Captain Pirrie and his descendants who contributed so much to the great industries of Belfast – shipbuilding and shipping, linen, thread-making and meat packing, to mention but a few. Members of the family also contributed significantly to the law and to politics, and to medicine and to nursing in Belfast.
As you all well know, Captain Pirrie’s children and grandchildren married into prominent Belfast families such as the Barbours, Sinclairs, Andrews and Brysons. We, in Belfast are proud to note that, one of his grandchildren was Lord Pirrie (1847-1924), Chairman of Harland & Wolff, and that Thomas Andrews (1873-1912) was his great-grandson. The significance of Captain Pirrie and his descendants to Belfast is also shown in the fact that a TV company has chosen to document events you are holding today, and in the next few days.
I myself have a keen interest in the history of the Titanic and am a founder member of the Belfast Titanic Society. I am also a native of Conlig in County Down where Captain Pirrie and his wife Eliza built Conlig House, their family home, in the 1830s. I remember visiting the house as a child, when it was still standing. As a result I chose my own family home in County Down, which was built at the same time in a similar Gothic style and was originally a bath house belonging to or rented by the Pirrie family.
I became Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1996, exactly 100 years after Lord Pirrie and met my wife Kerry at the 85th Anniversary Titanic Convention, held in Belfast City Hall on 15th April 1997 during my tenure of office. This was largely organised by her father Douglas Carson. Everyone will remember the talk he gave on the Pirrie family tree, on which his family and now I appear as members of the Barbour branch.
Kerry and I were married a year later on what is actually her father’s birthday 15th April 1997. We travelled for our honeymoon on the Orient Express from London to Southampton, where we boarded the Queen Elizabeth II for New York. We passed over the final resting place of the Titanic and phoned family and friends from the site. In New York we stayed at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, before travelling back to Belfast on Concord. Then on to Budapest as guests of Ferrari to see our friend Eddie Irvine racing in the Hungarian Grand Prix.Thus we emulated the cutting edge mechanical technology of the White Star Line.
It is very symbolic that you meet here today in the Harbour Office – an important and historic Belfast building. Captain Pirrie, a member of the Belfast Ballast Board (the forerunner of the Harbour Commissioners), was a key instigator in the dredging of Belfast Harbour to create the Victoria Channel.
Indeed, as Chairman of the new Harbour Commissioners, Captain Pirrie officially named the channel in a ceremony on 10th July 1849. On that day, a vessel carried the Commissioners, guests and a band towards the entrance to the New Channel. According to the Belfast Newsletter, Captain Pirrie made a short address on the quarter-deck, before pouring ‘a libation of champagne over the vessel’s side, as a rite of inauguration’.
In Captain Pirrie’s obituary on 12th June 1858, the same newspaper, The Belfast Newsletter stated: ‘During his thirty years service in the Board . . . a tortuous and shallow stream had been succeeded by a deep direct channel navigable at every tide. To Captain Pirrie, than to no Commissioner, is Belfast more indebted for these improvements’.
The creation of the Victoria Channel is what led to the significance and success of Belfast as a world port by the turn of the 20th century.
I wish you the very best for your time in Belfast, and hope that those of you who have come from distant shores will return again soon, bringing other family members with you. I look forward to meeting many of you after the presentations.“
Following this, in the late afternoon, as requested by our new Lord Mayor, Niall O'Donnghaile, I substituted for him at a reception for the family in the Lord Mayor's Parlour in the City Hall, Belfast, I spoke further of the Lord and Lady Pirrie's association with the City Hall, and then particularly of Lady Pirrie's work with the Royal Victoria Hospital. Margaret Montgomery Carlisle Pirrie had always worked closely with her husband and has been credited with much of his success. There is no doubt that she was responsible for the design and decoration of his magnificent ships, the Titanic included .