people some dates are deeply etched in our memories.
It's no surprise that many concern sport, 1966 when
the only National League was won, '68 when a Leinster
final win was added or '03 when Longford Town FC lifted
the FAI Cup for the first time. But now, one date and
one day clearly stands out from all the rest, December
25th 2009, Christmas Day, the day St Mel's Cathedral
was gutted by fire. Significantly the Cathedral features
on the crest of both Gaelic and soccer team crests emphasising
the importance of the Cathedral in the heart of the
community. Six months on and every single Longford person
can still recall how they heard the awful news, whether
by radio news, text or phone call. Irrespective of how
we heard the news, the response was the same, utter
shock and disbelief followed by an overwhelming sadness.
One local elderly
lady told me how she first heard the news. She has two
radios by her bedside, one tuned into RTE, the other
to Shannonside. Her reaction speaks volumes. At seven
am, on the national radio she simply heard that St Mel's
was on fire. “Ah sure, the two grandchildren will
be delighted that their school is gone and I turned
over and slept another while. Then on the eight o clock
news , I heard on Shannonside that it was St Mel's Cathedral
and lying in bed on that cold snowy Christmas morning
, I cried my eyes out.”
You didn't have
to be a regular Mass-goer to realise that the Cathedral
was the most beautiful building in the county. For those
who did visit, it was an oasis of tranquility, a wonderful
spiritual place where it was possible to escape the
chaos and madness of everyday life. It was so much more
than mere bricks and mortar and we were so proud of
It was because
the Cathedral meant so much to each person, that watching
the flames engulf the place, was so painful and so personal.
It was a deeply emotional day when the Christmas dinner
just didn't taste the same. Despite the seasonal snow,
it was a black day for all Longfordians, from the children
to the elderly, from the non believer to Bishop Colm.
But even as the
orange flames lit the bleak winter morning and the thick
smoke swept over the town, arrangements were being made
to have Mass said in the Temperance Hall. The fight
back had already begun.
On St Stephen's
day, as people gathered to stand and stare in stunned
silence at the smoldering ruins, a group of children
were singing their hearts out to raise money for the
restoration fund. The fight back was spreading.
Fr Tom Healy
is a superb organiser. He was responsible for having
had the Cathedral in such a magnificent state. The Christmas
day inferno would have broken the spirit of any ordinary
man. But within days, this extraordinary man was busier
than a swarm of bees organising alternative funeral
and wedding locations, dealing with national and local
media and seeking a new location in lieu of the Cathedral......and
that was before breakfast.
Given the task
of making a photographic record for the parish website
www.longfordparish.com, meant going inside the roofless
skeletal Cathedral. It was an eerie experience, especially
the first time. I was one of the fortunate ones to have
been present at the inspirational Midnight Mass. Now,
the once proud pillars stood blackened and cracked,
charred beams lay at distorted angles, slabs of reddish
copper , mangled and mashed rested where they fell.
The side aisles were no more, the floors were now gaping
holes, more like open sores opening onto the exposed
crypt. At Midnight Mass, the choir was heavenly. Now
their gallery was an unrecognisable tangle of steel
and distorted piping. At least the statue of St Mel
still stood tall, though it did look remarkably sad.
And overlooking this awful mad mess of heaped debris,
was a huge grey dull winter sky, where once the beautiful
arched ceiling had protected all of us. It reminded
me of an ancient Roman ruin or a scene from a second
world war film and yet it was our St Mel's Cathedral.
Our own surreal film set.
As people filed
past the ruined Cathedral to Mass in the Temperance
Hall, plans were already being put into action to transform
St Mel's College Chapel and sports hall. Once it was
announced that arson was ruled out, there seemed to
be a collective sigh of relief. There was a huge surge
of volunteers involved in all aspects of parish life
and very soon the results became visible. The College
Chapel quickly became very popular and by the end of
January , the first baptism was held there. Meanwhile
back at the Cathedral, the window and door spaces were
boarded up and at least from the outside it looked in
reasonable shape. Two huge mobile cranes soon became
part of the skyline as workers cleared out the debris
and continued to make the building safe. Inside the
Cathedral the pillars, now cracking, were secured with
steel rings and a massive array of scaffolding was erected.
Steel girders were placed to help keep the fragile higher
walls intact. The unseen workers were incredibly brave,
courageous, committed and hard working. Local firms
like Mulleadys, Gilmore Security, Kiernan Steel, CPL
and Irish Netting were employed which showed that every
cloud has a sliver of silver lining.
Prior to the
fire the presence of the Cathedral was always taken
for granted. Now it became a focal point. It was simply
impossible to pass without looking up. Even with the
protective hoarding, there were spaces left for us to
peep through and observe any progress.
When the Cathedral
Centre in St Mel's College was opened in the Spring,
people were awestruck with the wonderful transformation.
The reproduction of the wall hanging, pillars, stained
glass windows and especially the simple wooden cross
made from the charred wood made a huge impression on
everyone who attended. Incredibly many locals were walking
down the College avenue for the first time in their
lives. With the construction of the new footpath and
the lush growth of the foliage on the impressive mature
trees, going to Mass became a whole new experience of
renewal. The holding of this year's Corpus Christi procession
in the shadow of the roofless Cathedral was a deeply
moving experience for many.
From Ardagh to
Argentina, from Newtownforbes to New York, from Kenagh
to Korea, Longford people seemed to be reunited in concern
for the state of the Cathedral. The new parish website
played a hugely important role in keeping people up
to date. All over the world various scenes from the
Christmas day fire were played and replayed on Youtube.
Since December 25th wherever in Ireland you travel,
people straight away talk about the fire. The outpouring
of sincere sympathy has been breathtaking. Longford
Associations all over the globe have rallied to the
cause and a gesture of solidarity, the Association in
Dublin nominated St Mel as Longford Person of the Year.
When on May 9th
at Flancare, Longford Town FC hosted a Parish Family
Day to raise funds for the reserve fund, the sense of
community was overwhelming. In a peculiar way the fire
has actually brought people together and has cemented
a strong sense of community. Many parents have commented
on how their children, some of whom might have a youthful
cynicism, were also deeply moved by the devastating
fire. The involvement of young people was a feature
at the launching of the fascinating exhibition on the
Cathedral, currently on display in the County Library
and organised by Kitty Hughes, Mary Reynolds and their
Much has changed
in the six months. Writing this on 25th of June, the
temporary roof is almost complete and the tree lined
walk to St Mel's Cathedral Centre is now normal. Six
months ago we were experiencing temperatures of minus
14, roads were treacherous and driving almost impossible.
Now tractors and trailers are hauling loads of turf
past the Cathedral in sweltering temperatures and the
tar on the road is melting in spots. Much has changed.
But despite the
pain, grief and very real despair, thank God no one
died in the fire. Six months on and the strong sense
of community has strengthened further. As the Cathedral
spire still stands tall and proud, so too do our hopes
and desire that one day, one day in the not-too-distant
future, we'll walk tall and proud up the steps to a
renewed St Mel's Cathedral.
Dolan, June 25th 2010