Restoration in Longford: raising St Mel’s cathedral from the ashes
The restoration of Longford cathedral is one of the largest conservation projects in western Europe. On Sunday the public can go along to see how it is progressing
Before the fire: St Mel’s cathedral, Longford
Devastation: the interior of the cathedral after the fire on Christmas Day, 2009. Photograph: Tiernan Dolan
Engineering solutions: the complicated lifting arrangements needed for the 140 new columns. Photograph: Tiernan Dolan
On Christmas Day 2009, Kevin Fay stood at the entrance to St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford and watched in horror as snow fell on the still smouldering shell of the burnt-out building which has dominated the local skyline since the 1850s.
The cathedral roof was gone, the floor had collapsed into the crypt, and so intense was the heat that marble fittings had melted.
“The stone was still so hot that the snow made a crackling noise when it fell,” recalled structural engineer Fay, who had been an altar boy in the cathedral.
He is now director of the €30 million St Mel’s conservation project, described as the largest of its kind in western Europe.
A few hours before the fire hundreds of local people had attended Midnight Mass in St Mel’s which was celebrated by Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise Dr Colm O’Reilly, a driving force behind the restoration initiative.
Sparked by an electrical fault in a boiler, one of the reasons the inferno was so unforgiving was that the copper roof expanded, creating a furnace beneath it where the temperature climbed to 1,100 degrees Celsius. It later emerged that a painting of the Holy Family survived the blaze, although the canvas was just a few feet from a marble altar which “sugared” in the heat .
“Normally the roof would collapse, letting the heat out,” explained Fay, a director of local construction company Gem Group.
It has teamed up with Purcell Construction from Galway for this massive restoration job which is showcasing the skills of over 125 craftsmen, many from the diocese.
St Mel’s is a protected structure which luckily was fully insured. The foundation stone was laid in 1840, work stalled for 10 years during the Great Famine, and it would be decades before its distinctive Italianate bell tower, which survived the blaze, and the imposing portico were finished.
The deadline for Gem Purcell is somewhat tighter as the diocese has announced that Midnight Mass will be celebrated in St Mel’s on Christmas Eve 2014.
The restoration and conservation challenge was entrusted, in February 2011, to the architect Dr Richard Hurley, who has since passed away, and Colm Redmond, of Fitzgerald, Kavanagh & Partners, is now the lead architect.
The challenge for Gem Purcell, who came on board in September 2012, has also been immense, and on Sunday next, as part of St Mel’s Festival, the professionals will allow the public to view this work in progress during a cathedral open day.
With the Christmas 2014 deadline focusing minds, Gem Purcell came up with a number of ingenuous ways of meeting the massive logistical challenges.
Given that there was no floor, no roof and that the 28 hand-carved limestone columns which supported the structure were effectively destroyed, they devised a system which allowed the delicate restoration work to proceed on three levels at the same time.
“We effectively had three building sites, one above the other,” explained Martin Healy, managing director of Gem, which has previously worked on projects at Dublin Castle and Government Buildings.
With no floor to support scaffolding a suspended steel support “bridge” was constructed which allowed one team to work on the roof while below the delicate task of replacing the columns continued alongside the “ defrassing” of the fire-damaged internal masonry walls. This process involved removing and replacing by hand any blemished stones .
Meanwhile a concrete floor was laid while an army of skilled plasterers set about recreating traditional cornices in the basement where local clergy were once laid to rest in vaults.