Mass in the Cathedral this year was particularly special
. A half-moon shone brightly as the stars twinkled over
a sleepy Longford town transformed by a thick blanket
of bright snow. It was like being part of a Christmas
card as we crunched through the snow. Inside, the packed
Cathedral looked simply magnificent. The dimmed lights
added to the special atmosphere. The flickering tiny
lights on the imposing Christmas tree, the long white
drapes, the candles on the Advent wreath, more candles
to the front left of the altar and of course the wonderful
realistic Bedouin crib. Everything looked so perfect.
The aroma of
the incense that mingled with that of the fir tree was
almost hypnotic, but when the choir started to sing
their seasonal hymns the entire experience was truly
heavenly. In our sad and mad modern world, it’s
almost impossible to achieve the real sense of Christmas.
But tonight the hard working Cathedral team had achieved
In his homily
Bishop Colm spoke of hope in a dark world, he mentioned
the burning of a Poor Clare convent in nearby Tubberclair,
Co. Westmeath, and how, despite the setback of the fire,
their faith kept them going. As the Bishop was speaking
my eyes drifted upwards to the arched ceiling tastefully
painted, the tiny windows way up high, the upright grey
pillars, the larger than life statues, the wonderful
paintings of the Stations of the Cross. I’ve been
in the congregation now for more decades than I care
to remember but the beauty of the Cathedral never ever
fails to impress me. Being brutally honest, apart from
its generous genuine people, we don’t have a great
deal to be proud of in Longford but we do rightly boast
about our St Mel’s Cathedral.
Leaving the Cathedral
to head out into the cold winter air, many images were
swimming in my head. The glorious singing of the choir
accompanied by the bellowing of each of the 1850 pipes
in the organ, there was the genuine applause of appreciation,
the smiles and handshakes and good-humoured banter in
the porch with Colm and the priests, and most of all
a real sense of pride that we had something terribly
special in Longford.
the steps, they’re slippery, happy Christmas”,
“God, it’s cold tonight but that was a wonderful
Mass inside” “ It was beautiful, safe home,”
“ Good night, take care and have a good one ,
God bless”. The walk home seemed lighter.
A pre-dawn text
shattered the Christmas morning silence. Who in the
name of God would be texting at this hour? Blinking
in disbelief I read “Cathedral on fire”.
Knowing the sender who lived in Carlow was not a messer,
I immediately jumped from bed, and made my way back
in along the Ballinalee road. A heavy freezing fog combined
with darkness meant that initially nothing was visible.
Maybe it was only something small and was already out,
I thought to myself.
near the Cathedral a faint blue flashing light came
through the mist. An eerie sound of pops disturbed the
morning silence. Up higher a tongue of yellow flame
shot suddenly skywards. My heart sank.
reality hit home on reaching the traffic island in front
of the Cathedral. A small knot of shivering people were
gathered, eyes transfixed in shock and horror. The fire
had already taken hold and as smoke bellowed from the
roof, the windows glowed orange with the strength of
the flames inside.
We watched the
horror-show unfold in utter disbelief and shock, the
sense of complete helplessness overwhelming. Grown men
wept openly, others turned away clutching their heads.
This was like watching a treasured friend die and there
was nothing we could do. A fire-engine with a massive
lift poured water onto the roof, elsewhere hoses were
directing water through the windows. It resembled a
film set but this was ugly real and real ugly.
The orange flames
crept ever closer towards the spire, beams collapsed,
windows popped as the yellow helmeted firefighters fought
an unstoppable enemy. A visibly shaken Fr Healy stared
in disbelief, clutching a mug of coffee. Words of comfort
seemed as useless as the water poured on the flames
but were offered anyway.
As dawn broke
, the full and horrible extent of the damage became
apparent. Our beautiful pride and joy was gutted and
so was every single person there. The word spread rapidly.
Despite the snow and ice and minus eight temperature,
the crowd of stunned disbelievers continued to swell.
The outpouring of emotions was pure raw. People hugged
and cried and sobbed and talked about their shared pain.
That a single burning building could arouse such emotion
was truly remarkable.
But this was
no ordinary building. This was the pride of Longford
in flames. This was a very real part of Longford burning
and collapsing before our very eyes. This was our icon
being destroyed. Every Longfordian was deeply linked
to the Cathedral through Baptism, First Holy Communion,
Confirmation, Marriage and Funerals. Even though it
was just a building, it was a part of us. It was burning
and we felt its pain.
stories and its wedding history. The parents of James
Joyce were married there in 1880, Arthur Griffith and
Michael Collins were guests at the wedding of General
Sean McKeon to Alice Cooney who were married in the
Cathedral in 1921, the world famous athletes John Walker,
Eamonn Coghlan and Frank O’Mara were present at
the wedding of Longford’s most famous runner Ray
Flynn when he married Jan Clement in 1976.
As the firefighters
trained their hoses on the spire, there was a genuine
fear that it might topple as the fire raged around and
beneath it. A middle-aged woman from Killoe summed up
its place in the hearts of Longford people. She recalled
as a four year old, her mother brought into Longford
before Christmas which at the time was just an annual
visit. She vividly remembered visiting the Cathedral
and in her mind comparing it to “at least St Peter’s
of Rome if not Heaven itself”.
Despite the cold,
the crowd grew. Photos were taken on mobile phones and
sent all over the world. Images of the once proud spire
shrouded in thick smoke were emailed to where ever Longfordians
were spending Christmas morning. From Norway to Chad
to Korea to America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia,
England the response was the same, emotional, tear-filled,
shock, disbelief and utter heart-break.
When Bishop Colm
O Reilly spoke with RTE reporter Ciaran Mullooly, in
front of his beloved burning St Mel’s, he was
clearly in deep shock. Having served in the Cathedral
as a popular priest, the horrific scene behind him was
deeply painful as well as personal.
midday, down the town at Connolly Barracks it was announced
at the start of the GOAL Mile that the funds raised
would be going to the Cathedral restoration fund. The
response was the same as had been after midnight mass
,just hours earlier...applause. One young participant
proudly showed his Longford Town jersey with the Cathedral
on its crest. The funds have since been re-directed
to GOAL’s work in that place in all our thoughts
–Haiti, and we keep the people of that beleaguered
nation in our thoughts and prayers.
As dusk descended
on a stunned town, there was little more the exhausted
firefighters could do. By now they were simply damping
down the glowing embers. Throughout the town, county
and diocese young and old joined to watch the story
on the evening television news but still it didn’t
seem real. Shortly afterwards in the gathering darkness
and gloom and with most gone home, the Cathedral bell
sounded for the last time as it came tumbling down before
coming to rest in the ash and debris, the last sad sound
of the nightmare story of Christmas Day 2009.