An Irishman's Diary

Smoke rising from St Mel's Cathedral, Longford. There's now a strong determination to rebuild it.

Smoke rising from St Mel's Cathedral, Longford. There's now a strong determination to rebuild it.

Mon, Jan 4, 2010, 00:00

‘THE ONLY thing the town has had to be proud of is gone”. This terse comment, left on the internet forum Boards.ie, said it all: for the people of Longford, St Mel’s cathedral is not just a place of worship, it is an iconic landmark, a repository of history, and a symbol of the self-less devotion of an impoverished nation.

Nevertheless, the fire that tore through St Mel’s on Christmas morning has eviscerated one of Ireland’s best known cathedrals and cast a shadow across the midlands market town in whose life it has been central for over 150 years.

Like many in Longford, I was awoken on that morning not by the sound of excited children opening presents or family members enjoying Christmas breakfast but by the anxious voice of a neighbour. The call came just after 8am, by then St Mel’s had already been on fire for around three hours. Half asleep, I stood at the back window of my mother’s kitchen staring in horror as – less than a mile away – bright orange flames danced across the cruciform cathedral’s outstretched arms and thick black smoke bellowed into the sky. A few hours later, the building was still smouldering – the walls had survived the conflagration but almost everything inside was destroyed.

Christmas Masses did take place in Longford, although in a nearby community centre, not the town’s magnificent neo-classical cathedral. Given that fire services were tackling the blaze throughout the morning, it was remarkable that the traditional ceremonies were held at all, but that they were speaks volumes for the indefatigable spirit that has characterised St Mel’s from its earliest days.

St Mel’s cathedral was the brainchild of Bishop William O’Higgins, a native of Drumlish, in north Longford, and a fervent supporter of Daniel O’Connell and the Emancipation movement. Even after 1829, Catholics in the midlands continued to face persecution, strengthening O’Higgins’s resolve that the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise needed its own purpose-built cathedral.

Educated in Paris, O’Higgins found inspiration for his new cathedral in the City of Lights’ famous Madeleine cathedral, as well as the Pantheon and the Basilica of St John Lateran. On May 19th, 1840, more than 40,000 parishioners as well as clergy from a far afield as Australia and the United States were present as the foundation stone, which was taken from the ruined 8th-century cathedral of St Mel in Ardagh, Co Longford, was laid.

It is impossible to overestimate the psychological import of St Mel’s cathedral for the people of Longford and surrounding counties, particularly in its early years. Longford in the middle of the 19th century was a poor market town, the majority of whose inhabitants lived in mud huts and thatched houses, but from the midst of this squalor the cathedral’s massive Doric pilasters began to rise. The local economy also benefited: most of the limestone used in the construction came from west Longford and Knockcroghery in Co Roscommon.

Since opening in 1856 – building work was suspended during the famine – St Mel’s has housed practically every item of historical interest or significance in county Longford. As well as the 10th-century crozier of St Mel and various reliquaries, the Holy Family Altar, which had been rescued from a Roman church that was sacked during the Garibaldi campaign, was lost in the fire.

I left Longford many years ago – had the tragic fire not happened during the holidays I probably would not have been around to witness it – but, like so many others, St Mel’s was a vital presence in my life. It was first and foremost a religious place – I made my communion and confirmation there, and celebrated countless births, marriages and deaths within its now fire ravaged walls – but my strongest memories of it are cultural: almost every trip home incorporated a pit-stop to admire the finest works of art in Longford, the remarkable Harry Clarke windows that adorned the cathedral.

The stained glass, like so much else in St Mel’s, is irreplaceable, and the estimate of €2 million worth of damage quoted in the media has caused dismay on the streets of Longford. As one St Stephen’s Day reveller put it to me, “It will cost that much just to get the cathedral to the point where you can spend money repairing it.” The real cost of repairing St Mel’s is likely to run into eight figures, but in Longford town I found a genuine determination to see the cathedral rebuilt. History is on its side: in 1838 Bishop O’Higgins travelled to all 41 parishes of the diocese, raising £2,000 from ordinary people for the new cathedral.

O’Higgins’s contemporaries have many difficult questions to answer but, for many in Longford and across the Midlands, restoring St Mel’s is about much more than religion.