Today in Longford town Bishop Francis Duffy, Bishop of Ardagh & Clonmacnois, reopened a restored Saint Mel’s Cathedral five years after a devastating fire destroyed the interior of the building, most of its furnishings and fittings, and the roof on Christmas Eve/Christmas morning in 2009. Please see below the reopening schedule for Masses, and public viewings, which will take place in Saint Mel’s Cathedral over the coming days. There follows the addresses delivered at the press conference this morning to mark the reopening of the Cathedral. Photographs from today’s event are available for media use by contacting John McElroy on +353 (0) 87 241 6985.
Schedule for Masses and public viewings
Sunday 21 December
Masses at 8.00am, 10.00am, 11.30am and 1.00pm
Public viewing from 2.00pm until 7.30pm
Live Crib at 3.00 pm with prayers at 5.00pm – Cathedral Grounds
Monday 22 December
Mass at 8.00am and 10.00am
Tuesday 23 December
Mass at 8.00am and 10.00am
Mass at 8.00 am and 10.00am
Mass of Christmas Night (Midnight Mass) at 11.00pm
All seating for Midnight Mass on a first come first served basis
Masses will be at 8.00am, 10.00am, 12.00pm and 1.30pm – please note change of times of last two Masses
Live broadcasts on RTÉ One Television, and on RTÉ Radio 1
The Bells of Saint Mel’s 10.00pm RTÉ Radio 1
Midnight Mass 11.00pm RTÉ One Television
Christmas Mass 10.00am RTÉ One Television
Tuesday 30 December
Would You Believe? Special at 6.30pm RTÉ One Television documentary entitled ‘The Longford Phoenix’
Broadcasts on Shannonside Radio (104.1FM)
Saturday 20 December
Opening Mass at 7.30pm
Midnight Mass at 11.00pm
Saturday 20 December
Opening Mass at 7.30pm
Sunday 21 December
Masses at 8.00am, 10.00am, 11.30am and 1.00pm
Midnight Mass at 11.00pm
Masses at 8.00am, 10.00am, 12 noon and 1.30pm
- Address by Bishop Francis Duffy, Bishop of Ardagh & Clonmacnois
- Address by Bishop Colm O’Reilly, Bishop Emeritus of Ardagh & Clonmacnois
- Address by Father Tom Healy, Administrator, Saint Mel’s Cathedral
- Address by Mr Seamus Butler MCC, chair of the Cathedral Project Committee
- Address by Niall Meagher (Managing Director, Interactive Project Managers, IPM), Cathedral Project Manager with overall responsibility for delivering the restoration project
- Address by Mr Colm Redmond, lead architect, Fitzgerald, Kavanagh and Partners
Address by Bishop Francis Duffy, Bishop of Ardagh & Clonmacnois
I recall seeing the reports of the fire on Christmas Day 2009. There was a clear sense of devastation and sorrow among people interviewed. One voice was clear about what would happen, Bishop Colm. He said that Saint Mel’s would be rebuilt; that was the voice of leadership. Today, from the bottom of my heart, I wish to thank Bishop Colm for his vision and his determination. Here we are five years on, in our beautifully reconstructed Cathedral of Saint Mel, ready to open its familiar doors in welcome to the faithful of the town, the diocese, and beyond.
I have spent the last twelve months getting to know the diocese and Saint Mel’s. My first real insight into the project was at the open-day in September 2013 greeting the few thousand people who came to see the progress. Many spoke about how much their Cathedral meant to them and how they missed it. At that time I met with RTÉ Midlands Correspondent Ciaran Mullooly. Ciaran will be presenting a special hour long television documentary entitled ‘The Longford Phoenix Rises’ on 30 December on the key moments in the phoenix-like re-birth of Saint Mel’s from the ashes of the old Cathedral in 2009 to its restored self. I wish to thank Ciaran, and in particular our local media, for their interest and quality coverage of this journey, which at its core is very much a human-interest story.
There were several key moments during the last year when I had the opportunity to become more involved in the project. In October 2013 I joined the Cathedral Project Committee chaired by Seamus Butler. Its aim is to manage and oversee the provision of a reconstructed and restored Saint Mel’s. I also joined the Art Procurement Committee chaired by Alexander White; its role is to source and manage the provision of artwork for the building. Just over a year ago the artists gathered in Longford. Listening to them make presentations left me no doubt that we had a group of men and women who are the best in their areas of speciality. Today I salute your Trojan and meticulous work.
It is readily apparent how, throughout the diocese, that there was a great sense of loss and a great fondness for ‘our Cathedral’. A few months ago a symposium on the role of a cathedral was held in Saint Mel’s College. Kitty Hughes spoke very movingly of what the Cathedral means to the people of Longford; that, I think, is an important key to this story. A few weeks later Tiernan Dolan’s photographic exhibition was opened telling the story of the restoration, from the day of the fire to the present; a story of transformation from a shell to the beautiful and elegant sacred place we have today. This unfolding story is on Facebook and has followers from all over the world. What a wonderful record of a story of how Saint Mel’s rose from the ashes! I have no doubt that Ciaran’s upcoming documentary will narrate the same story from many viewpoints. Bishop Colm is interviewed in that documentary and says that he would like to see the new Cathedral become a symbol for renewal of the Church in Ireland. Symbols are important because they represent values, they point to opportunities, and can awaken and channel energies to move forward.
The Saint Mel’s Cathedral Project Committee, the Art Procurement Committee, the Design Team, Gem Purcell, the main contractors, and the team of master craftsmen and women from all over Ireland, along with people from the local community, gave of their best to ensure that Saint Mel’s would rise again to be a special place for Longfordians, the people of Ardagh and Clonmacnois and the many visitors who will continue to walk up the steps of the this beautiful building erected to the glory of God.
The foundation stone for Saint Mel’s Cathedral was laid on 19 May 1840, in the presence of 40,000 people, and each year the anniversary is celebrated on that date. Next May we shall rededicate the restored Saint Mel’s Cathedral at 3:00pm on Sunday 17 May, as this is the date which falls closest to the nineteenth. Finally, may I wish you all God’s blessings at this joyful time, and now pass you over to Bishop Colm O’Reilly.
Address by Bishop Colm O’Reilly, Bishop Emeritus of Armagh & Clonmacnois
I had a good friend who was well informed and keenly interested in horse racing. He was also very experienced in giving interviews on radio and television. When describing a particularly tricky encounter with the media he would occasionally say that “it wasn’t flat racing. That was over hurdles”.
I can say that my own experiences of being interviewed about Saint Mel’s Cathedral were on the flat, except for one moment in one interview. That was the one that was done on the morning of Christmas Day 2009 with the smoking shell of what had been a Cathedral in the background.
Here was how the question was presented: what is the future for Saint Mel’s Cathedral? The fence demanded that the jump, if taken, should be done without hesitation. And so it was that I uttered, in haste, one of the most significant answers of my life: “we will restore it”.
I cannot help feeling a sense of satisfaction now about that reply. The Cathedral restoration is done (and even dusted) I am pleased to say. The many people who have been digging and drilling, plastering and painting and a hundred other things can lift their eyes at last and admire the work of their heads and hands. The Project Manager, Design Team, and all who have pored over maps, drawings and cost estimates can begin to close the books. A building project of quite exceptional complexity has been steered into the destination that seemed betimes to behave like a mirage, almost there and then moving away. From the main contractors, Gem Purcell, to the people who were employed in any of the many subcontracts that we had, all can look back with great pride and satisfaction on a great achievement.
Same questions, new meaning
At this time the question that I was asked in 2009 can be addressed again. What does the future hold for Saint Mel’s Cathedral? We are sure, I am certain, that barring some calamity it will stand the test of time. The building has been completed, I believe, to the highest standard. This is not the time and I am not the person to acknowledge the high quality of the planning and building in any definitive way. Suffice it to say that the approval is high across the board.
The same question can be asked again, but with a new meaning. I want to address the question about the future in a different way. So I want quote a line from Psalm 127, a well-known line: “unless the Lord builds the house, they labour in vain who build it”. The line is difficult to understand. However, this much is clear, building a church or cathedral does not stop when ready for use. A family home has people ready to move in when built. Schools have teachers and pupils ready to fill their rooms. Saint Mel’s Cathedral does not demand that people come in. It must attract not compel. We must invite people to come in through open doors.
Pope Francis is very emphatic in saying that our churches should have their doors open. Here is what he says: “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should be always open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door”. As we all know by now, Pope Francis has no hesitation in throwing down a challenge. In a message for World Communications Day, 1 June, of this year he had this to say: “We are all called to show the Church is the home for all. Are we capable of communicating the image of such a Church?”
A welcome face
The design team have made a change to the entrance to the esplanade in front of the Cathedral. Pope Francis would like it, I think. People walking up Dublin Street will find that the footpath divides into two directions in front of the Presbytery, one inviting pedestrians towards the Cathedral, the other continuing around its railings as before. In a small but important way, this new arrangement is “communicating the image of a welcoming Church”, to quote Pope Francis.
We have reason to believe that there will be no need for persuasion to bring people into the restored Cathedral. If over four thousand were willing to queue to get in on the 29 September, the last open day held to let the public see the progress that had been made, there will be many more than that number visiting over this Christmas season and early months of 2015. Many young people will be among the crowds of visitors. All will see the vision of Ireland’s foremost Church architect, Dr Richard Hurley, now deceased, which has been completed by Colm Redmond who succeeded him. They will also see the work of some of our finest Irish artists. In all ten artists were involved, five men and five women. Saint John Paul, himself an artist, said that art is a “bridge between life and faith”. We would hope that in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, beautifully restored, many people will cross that bridge. If I might adapt lines from Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village”, I would hope that those who come to look will remain to pray.
We hope that people of different faith communities will enter its doors. People who belong to the Protestant community will be happy to know that their tradition is making a contribution to the restored building. The design of the altar was inspired by the communion table in the Cathedral of Saint Giles, a Church of Scotland one in Edinburgh. Some important furnishings, including the Bishop’s Chair, were designed by an Anglican artist called Angela Godfrey. The Baptismal Font, located inside the main door, will remind all Christians of the fact that we see Baptism as the Sacrament of entry to the Church.
It was the late Richard Hurley who identified the artists who were appointed for particular items. We are greatly indebted to him for this and much else. Among other lessons he taught was a deep respect for what he constantly referred to as “the sacred space”. He spoke with reverence of the altar and constantly referred to the importance of the Cathedra or Bishop’s Chair as a reminder of the role of the Bishop as the Teacher of the faith in the Diocese.
Longford’s time of opportunity
Someone who was with us in the awful aftermath of the fire five years ago was in Longford to see the restoration a short time ago. He wrote the following after his visit: “Seeing the transformation from a scene of total devastation just five years ago to the recreation of a beautiful Cathedral balancing the historic with the contemporary, one can see and sense the thought, creativity, passion, craftsmanship, blood, sweat and tears that have been put into every aspect of this astonishing restoration. No doubt the people of Longford will feel fully rewarded for their patience, support and faith, when they see what you have delivered”. The message was not addressed to me, I should be careful to add. I would, however, add one more word to what the writer said about what the people of Longford brought to the cathedral restoration. That word would be “enthusiasm”. The people really wanted the project to succeed and succeed well. That was important.
Do they feel rewarded? I am sure they do. I would like to think that in time to come Longford people will continue to feel good about the Cathedral which has been their great source of pride in the past. They will be unlikely to forget that the restoration was done in the very worst of these recent years in Ireland. At a future time this question might be asked: “what made 2010 a year to forget in Ireland?” The answer will be, of course: “The Banks Bailout”. Then a different question might be asked: “what made 2010 a year to remember in Longford?” The answer will be: “The restoration of the Cathedral began then”. The current year 2014 is, of course, assured of a central place in Longford’s history, the year when Longford, and Diocese of Ardagh & Clonmacnoise, got its old Cathedral back, a building that is old and new, its vaulted ceiling perfectly reproducing what was lost, its 28 pillar colonnade a symbol of strength and permanence.
May the symbolism of our restored Cathedral touch our minds and hearts and restore our hope. God bless you all!
Address by Mr Seamus Butler MCC, chair of the Cathedral Project Committee
Hello everybody and thank you for your attendance on this wonderful occasion. The cost for the reconstruction work and restoration of Saint Mel’s is of the order of €30 million. The reason an absolute figure can’t be furnished at this time is that the project is as yet not finished, and a lot of final accounts will have to be agreed. I can assure you that every euro spent will be accounted for on completion of all the works.
We have our insurers, Allianz, to thank for the vast majority of the funds. We do have a figure approaching €1 million in voluntary contributions for which we are extremely grateful. The only tax payers’ funding came by way of grant from the Heritage Council (€100,000) to clean and repair the tympanum. This was not fire damaged. In fact we would estimate that the taxpayer benefited from the restoration of the Cathedral. As the diocese is not registered for value added tax, all VAT on the payment for the goods and services went directly to Revenue. Similarly, a large amount of money was generated by all the PAYE, PRSI and USC paid by the employers and employees went directly to the Revenue, especially when you consider this was a much more labour intensive operation compared to a normal building project. Estimates have put the net take for the Revenue at €7.5 million.
We had certain freedoms in our procurement and contract processes that would not be possible were this a public works project. For example, the Cathedral Project Committee decided early to maximise the return to the local economy where at all possible. In the main contract documents we stipulated a minimum local labour of 60%. Indeed that was surpassed with the figure achieved being 75%. We also stipulated that payment to the main contractor was dependent on furnishing certified payments to all the sub-contractors. We were determined that we were not going to be responsible for the smaller people to get left unpaid, as happened in other projects in the past. In all, for the reconstruction project of Saint Mel’s, about 150 jobs were created, per year, over the five years.
The Cathedral Project Committee approached Longford Community Resources Ltd about the possibility of training courses being run in Longford to complement the traditional skills being employed on the Cathedral. A local company was set up, and an up-skilling and a separate apprentice course was devised and implemented, and this involved the training of sixty craft-people over the year 2012 – 2013. This was funded under the Rural Development Programme (Leader funds). Some restoration was carried out in Connolly Barracks as part of the courses. This is now being explored as a possible permanent training location for traditional building and conservation skills, which would be a very welcome legacy to the restoration of Saint Mel’s Cathedral.
I pass you over now to the Administrator of Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Father Tom Healy.
Address by Father Tom Healy, Administrator, Saint Mel’s Cathedral
Christmas Day 2009 is indelibly implanted in my memory – I remember it as a day of utter confusion, distress and sorrow.
I was awoken in the early hours and in the freezing cold temperatures stood and watched the beautiful Cathedral of Saint Mel turn into a towering inferno. People gathered in the streets and stood bewildered and shocked and saddened – they were distraught beyond words at what they saw. A phrase used many times since was ‘we thought the Cathedral indestructible’. And so, it was a massive unforgettable moment in the lives of anyone with any association with Longford. And indeed I remember in the hours that followed receiving phone calls and text messages of sympathy and support from Longford people in the US, Australia, and England. In the wake of the disaster I recall an amazing reaction of community support and goodwill amid the shared grief.
On Saint Stephen’s Day 2009, Bishop Colm’s doorbell went and he was met by four young girls who had been “On the Wren”, and they wanted to give their proceeds to a fund that hadn’t yet been established. Five years on we remember the generous heartfelt gesture of those young girls and that’s something that was replicated many times in many ways over the years.
In the aftermath of the fire we had to go into emergency mode. The early days were filled with making the building safe, doing emergency works and setting up alternative facilities at Saint Mel’s College. There was a tremendous sense of volunteerism – nothing was too much to ask of anybody. The parish had to continue to function over the five years and relied principally on facilities at Saint Mel’s College which is situated here beside us. While the facilities were temporary, they proved to be very suitable and we express our gratitude to all at Saint Mel’s College for accommodating us so well.
In time we established Saint Mel’s Cathedral Project Committee and set ourselves the five year goal of being operational for Christmas 2014. It has been a long hard interesting journey with many twists and turns – it has been a huge life experience. We are delighted to have achieved our goal and it is a joy for us to be able to hand back the Cathedral to the parish and the diocese this Christmas time. We are deeply grateful to the Project Committee, the Sacred Art Committee, our Design Team and our contractors for the enormous effort that all have invested in realising the completion of this mammoth restoration project.
Saint Mel’s Cathedral is undoubtedly an iconic building for all Longford people. It has stood proudly at the centre of the town for over 170 years. In that time generations of local people have come Sunday after Sunday as well as for the high points of their Christian lives – Baptism, Weddings, Funerals as well as First Holy Communions and Confirmations – I think it’s fair to say that almost no family who have lived in Longford would not have had some connection in some way.
Over the years the familiar peal of the Bells of Saint Mel’s called us to a place of comfort and serenity. To enter its doors was to enter a peaceful, restful place with a lovely welcoming, mellow atmosphere. The absence of Saint Mel’s over the past five years year has been felt badly. Many said the heart was gone out of the town. It is a place where hundreds came every day to say a prayer, to light a candle, to attend Mass or to sit a while and seek a quiet refuge from the busy world in its quiet stillness.
And so is it any wonder that all have been so enthusiastically looking forward to the day when the Saint Mel’s Cathedral would again open its doors in welcome to all. There has been a palpable air of excitement in Longford for the past while – it seems that everybody has been talking about it. I am confident that five years on from that dreadful fire, the community of Longford will embrace their Cathedral again with great affection and that it will again find its place at the very heart of our local community as its bells invite us to come and rest awhile from the busy world.
And we hope that as it has played a pivotal role in the lives of the people of Longford for 170 years it will continue to be a beacon of hope and a symbol of faith for generations to come. Thank you, one and all, for your generous support.
Address by Niall Meagher (Managing Director, Interactive Project Managers, IPM), Cathedral Project Manager with overall responsibility for delivering the restoration project
One of the many quotations to describe a Cathedral includes the words ‘The Cathedral is a modern structure, or better still, a foundation that is (as it were) undisturbed by the flow of time.’ Saint Mel’s Cathedral, which was initially built over a period of sixty years, has in these last five years undergone an immense transformation. That is from the destruction of December 2009 to its reopening today in December 2014. These last five years are but a small part in the overall timeline of Saint Mel’s Cathedral, but for those of us who have had the honour to be involved in its restoration, these years have been immensely challenging and fulfilling.
When we first visited the Cathedral in early 2010 our impression was of both dismay at the terrible loss to the community, but also one of awe at the enormity and challenge of the task ahead. In a way our naive optimism was perhaps a benefit; to be without the burden of the direct experience of the loss.
At the stage of our appointment as the Project Managers we were met by a client body who immediately imbued a sense of commitment and had the ability to look and plan ahead even when the path was unclear. There are some international examples of a restoration of this scale as reference points, but in essence each project must begin at its own starting point and must plot its own way to completion. Throughout this process the client body has given unwavering support to the project team of professionals, contractors, craftsmen and artists.
There have been milestones in the delivery of the restoration project including :
- July 2010 : taking back the Cathedral in its damaged state to commence the restoration project. The temporary roof set at a height to allow the new roof to be constructed beneath. The columns fully supported to allow time to evaluate their condition. All of the elements of salvage removed for safekeeping.
- Writing of the brief in late 2010 for the restoration of the Cathedral and encompassing the new ideal for the Cathedral and wherein the brief stated “The vision of the restored Saint Mel’s Cathedral is to create a space which, while respecting the rich architectural heritage of the basilica plan, embraces the people by the noble simplicity of its liturgical ordering; a space where people will gather as individuals with their hopes and hurts and be sent out as a community, members of the body of Christ’.
- February 2011 : the appointment of the lead architect for the restoration of the Cathedral, Richard Hurley in association with Fitzgerald Kavanagh Architects.
- September 2011 : the first open day for member of the public to enter the Cathedral to experience at first hand the scale of destruction and the task ahead. This, together with a display in the temporary ‘Cathedral Centre’ of the initial plans and a scale model for the reordering of the interior of the Cathedral.
- November 2011 : the first contracts, the restoration of the Tympanum and the discovery of the time capsule in the statue of the Sacred Heart, replacement of a single column and with it the realisation that the fire damaged columns could not be salvaged.
- March 2012 : the Grant by Longford Town Council of the Section 57 to allow the replacement of all 28 columns and the placing of the order for the stone with the quarry in Old Loughlin in May 2012.
- April 2012 : placing of the contract of the new organ with Fratelli Ruffatti of Padua.
- September 2012 : the Grant of Permission for the replacement of the roof of the Cathedral. The award of the main contract for the restoration of the Cathedral to Gem Purcell.
- April 2013 : placing of the commission for the new Stations of the Cross and the Grant of Permission for the internal reordering of the Cathedral.
- September 2013 : the second open day for the community to visit the Cathedral to see the restoration progress, finally removing the temporary roof and revealing the new natural slate roof, October 2013 return of the restored time capsule.
- March 2014 : delivery of the new Altar and the Grant of Permission for the external works and in April 2014 the Grant of Permission for the Crypt
- October 2014 : removal of the internal scaffolding and revelation of the restored interior the Cathedral.
- December 2014 : installation of the final artistic elements and completion of the Cathedral restoration.
The project has involved all facets of works from traditional construction, repair of damaged historic fabric, repair of artwork and artefacts and commissioning of new works of liturgical art. The project has demanded the full cooperation of the State and local agencies, Longford Town Council and County Council, the Department of the Environment, The Heritage Council, assistance of the National Museum and the National Gallery of Ireland. The Cathedral project may yet redefine the convention on restoration, there is a perception of the passing of traditional skills, yet it has been these skills which have brought together the Cathedral we see today and which contribute to the character of the Cathedral; this is terms of the depth of material, the visible hand of the craftsman with its natural variance and personality.
Finally, the introduction to the Architectural Heritage of Co. Longford (N.I.A.H.) states: “the well-crafted if rather austere exterior conceals a fine interior that is remarkable for its use of space and for the richness and complexity of its decoration”. We hope that the completed project will at least live up to the original description and perhaps will deserve mention of the restoration project as an honourable endeavour.
Address by Mr Colm Redmond, lead architect, Fitzgerald, Kavanagh and Partners
Like many people, we were surprised and shocked at the level of destruction caused by the fire and fully appreciated Bishops Colm’s description of the tragedy being like a ”like a dagger in the heart of the Diocesan family”.
Back in 2010, we were first approached to express an interest in being involved in the reconstruction of Saint Mel’s Cathedral. We were fortunate to be appointed along with Richard Hurley and Associates to take on the challenge of the restoration works. We worked alongside the late Dr Richard Hurley, one of the leading Irish liturgical architects, until his passing away in December 2011, just over three years ago. I personally learned a huge amount from Richard, his approach to his work and his passion and vision. Over the past few years, we have worked hard to realise this vision and to bring something of our own liturgical understanding and conservation expertise to the restoration works.
From the beginning, the project was seen as consisting of two main aspects. Firstly, to restore the Cathedral to its former glory and, secondly, to create a Cathedral for the third millennium, reflecting the Church’s way of seeing itself: open to the world and caring for the poor and troubled. The vision of the restored Saint Mel’s Cathedral is to create a space which, while respecting the rich architectural heritage of the basilican plan, embraces the people by the noble simplicity of its liturgical re-ordering.
The reconstruction of the Cathedral has been approached from the point of view of preserving as much of the original fabric of the protected structure as possible. Where this could not be achieved due to the extreme damage from the fire, materials were replaced on a like-for-like basis. This involved introducing new materials and carrying out works in a sensitive manner.
We had only around half a dozen historic drawings, dating from between 1940 and 1980, and about a dozen photographs from the 1990’s to put together a picture of the building. We scoured through archives and files to develop an understanding of the Cathedral before the fire. We discovered that the original roof had been covered in slate from the Penrhyn Quarry in Wales; that the roof trusses had been Baltic Pine timber; that the columns and stone came from a number of local Limestone quarries including New Town Cashel. We were inspired by the story of the visionary Bishop O’Higgins from near Drumlish, in Country Longford, who taught in the colleges of Paris, Rome and Vienna and returned to his native County Longford to build a major “Greek Revival” Cathedral in the midlands of Ireland. The first phase was designed by Joseph B Keane and building works started in May 1840. We learned from the Architectural Archives of Ireland, that he had worked on Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Marlborough Street in Dublin, and this may have influenced his design for Saint Mel’s. We crawled around the attic of the Pro Cathedral to understand its construction and how we could rebuild the roof of Saint Mel’s.
The building was severely damaged by the fire and very little of the fabric remained intact. The main surviving elements were the portico, campanile and external walls. It is estimated that at the peak of the fire, temperatures reached eight to nine hundred degrees centigrade. The high temperature followed by the immediate cooling with water from the fire-fighting and subsequent freeze-thaw effect of the cold weather, caused the columns and other stone to crack. All 28 columns were badly damaged to the point that they could no longer carry the walls above. The stone had cleaved away from the columns in large slices and cracks widened as time passed and continued to do so for twelve to eighteen months. It was soon established that all 28 columns would have to be replaced. The task of holding up the arches and upper walls, while replacing each stone column one by one, was a considerable engineering achievement and one which had not been carried out on this scale before. To take the building from the condition of a shell to the completed work we see today is a remarkable achievement. It included many other building elements, requiring research, technical details, quality materials and excellent craftsmanship. We were fortunate to have found these elements in our Design Team, Main Contractors, Sub-Contractors, Master Craftsmen and Suppliers. The other main building elements included the replication of historic roof trusses, windows, stairs, new floors with under floor heating, first class lighting, fire detection and sound systems.
In tandem with the conservation works we had the opportunity to work with some of the finest Irish and international artists, who are working in the area of liturgical art. From the restoration of historic stained glass to the completion of truly contemporary art glass, light is shining through the Cathedral once again. The purity of the white Cararra marble altar table contrasts with the richly decorated tabernacle and swirling colours of the baptismal font. I have no doubt that Stations of the Cross will be an attraction in themselves as well as path to prayer and reflection. The great Saint Mel’s tradition in sacred music will be truly restored with the new choir gallery and the magnificent organ, which appears to float between the transept columns. This organ, which is one of the largest in the country, presents huge potential for fostering sacred music in the diocese.
We have been very fortunate with the quality and the skills of the craftsmen and women who have worked on the Cathedral over the last four years. Many of the crafts and trades are traditional skills which have found new life and vigour in new hands where knowledge and skill has been passed on to a new generation. These skills harken back to older traditions and play an important part in the management, care and restoration of our historic buildings on this island.
Back in 2011, the late Richard Hurley spoke about the restoration works in the context of the new interior as “a well-executed re-ordering (that) cannot but result in an enlivened liturgy. And an enlivened liturgy will mean an enlivened faith community”. It is my hope that the people of the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois will embrace their Cathedral as the return of an old friend, that they recognise in the building features they have known for many years, while welcoming new the interventions as part of a new phase in the life of the Cathedral.
Notes to Editors
- On the morning of Christmas Day 2009, a fire at Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Longford destroyed the interior of the building, most of its furnishings and fittings, and the roof. While the fire was burning Bishop Colm O’Reilly, who was bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise at the time, immediately announced plans to restore the Cathedral. In the days following the fire, people locally, nationally, and from abroad, offered support including the then President of Ireland Mary McAleese, and her husband Martin, who gave a personal gift of a stained glass image of Saint Patrick ordaining Saint Mel so that it could be placed in the newly restored Cathedral. Among the material damaged by the fire were the contents of the Diocesan Museum, located at the rear of the Cathedral. Assembled in the 1930s and ’40s by the late Father Michael Kearney, President of Saint Mel’s College, the collection was moved to the Cathedral in 1974. The collection included almost 500 items and ranked among the finest ecclesiastical museums in the country, containing a varied collection of ecclesiastical material as well as objects of archaeological, historical and ethnographical interest. It included a number of objects of national importance, including the ninth-century Crozier of Saint Mel, patron of the diocese, which was found at Ardagh, Co Longford in the nineteenth century. Of equal importance was the Shrine of Saint Caillinn of Fenagh, Co Leitrim – a book shrine dated to 1536 and associated with Brian O’Rourke, Lord of Breifne – along with the twelfth-century Clog na Rígh – ‘bell of the kings’ – also associated with Saint Caillinn. Of particular local interest were a number of ceremonial keys and trowels used in commemorating the foundations of the Cathedral and other parish churches in the diocese. It seemed at first that the entire contents of the museum had perished in the fire. Among the objects recovered were the Shrine of Saint Caillinn which is largely intact and a portion of the Crozier of Saint Mel the patron saint of the diocese. Among the other objects found were an early iron hand-bell from Wheery, Co Offaly and a thirteenth-century crozier made at Limoges in France. Regrettably, the collection of vestments, penal crosses, altar vessels of pewter and silver, and works in paper were lost. In all over 200 objects were recovered and these have been removed to a stable environment at the National Museum of Ireland for safekeeping in order that their condition could be assessed. The diocese is working closely with the National Museum to develop a conservation strategy for the objects recovered.
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth +353 (1) 5053017 or Martin Long in Longford +353 (0) 86 172 7678. Photographs can be obtained from John McElroy on +353 (0) 87 241 6985.