Letter on St Mel's Cathedral from Bishop Colm
to the priests and people of Ardagh and Clonmacnois

by Tiernan Dolan

For Longford 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.

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 team.

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.

Tiernan Dolan, June 25th 2010