Scenes by Random Irish Photos from the re-opening of St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, Co Longford this evening. The cathedral was gutted by fire during Christmas 2009 (top).
Tonight saw the first mass being held in St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford. Gutted by fire in 2009, more than €30 million has been been spent restoring the iconic neo-classical-style building named after the 5th century saint and uncle of St Patrick..
Just under 1,000 people turned up for the mass, which was celebrated by Fr Tom Healy – the last priest to say mass in the cathedral before it caught fire in the early hours of December 25, 2009.
Although it was originally thought to have been started by vandals, it was an accident.
It started in a section of a chimney flue in the old heating system of the building – that dates back to 1840 – sometime between midnight mass and 5am. It spread to the sacristy and then to the wood floor before catching wooden beams and roof.The heat was so intense that marble fittings melted. Indeed, 26 limestone columns would have to be completely replaced as they had shattered under the intense heat, which reached as high as 1,100c.
The roof was destroyed, the floor collapsed into the crypt and countless priceless religious artifacts and other treasures were destroyed. As well as paintings, tapestries and statues, they included St Mel’s 1,000-year-old wooden crozier.
Fr Healy recalled: “We had had a wonderful celebration of midnight Mass.It was just an almighty shock to be woken in the middle of the night and told the cathedral was on fire.
We just stood in the streets literally crying – helpless as we watched the flames break through the roof as it succumbed. So it was a time of enormous shock for everybody in Longford.”
Not all the art work was destroyed. An Italian oil painting (pictured) of the holy family survived the blaze unscathed, despite being located in centre of the blaze. It hangs over a side alter near the prayer offertory and has become something of an attraction among church goers.
Ronan Moore, the senior project manager who has helped guide St Mel’s restoration, said it should have been one of the first canvasses to be set alight.
‘We will never know how it survived,’ Ronan recalls in a new RTÉ documentary on the restoration of St Mel’s to be aired on RTÉ One this Christmas. ‘You can see it here just a few yards from some of the huge stone pillars and columns of the old church that were completely de-stabilised by the searing heat of the fire – turning to dust and had to be replaced. ‘Yet the painting stayed intact above it all – while all around it was destroyed by those huge temperatures.’
The cathedral this Christmas will also showcase restored Harry Clarke stained glass windows. The original windows were scorched and shattered in the fire. Over 675 tonnes of native blue limestone from Leighlin, Co Carlow, have been installed – for the columns, the hand-carved window surrounds, pilasters, and for replacement corbels for the bell tower, which also sustained some damage. To get this amount of limestone in the section sizes required, a staggering 10,400 tonnes had to be quarried.
‘The Longford Phoenix’ – a Would You Believe special documentary – goes to air on RTÉ One on 30 December at 6.30pm.
Helping Fr Healey celebrate mass was Bishop emeritus Colm O’Reilly and Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois, Francis Duffy.