Sunday 27 December 2009

Majestic Irish Cathedral Destroyed by Fire

(image: RTÉ)

The north-central Irish Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise has suffered the tragic loss of its 150-year old cathedral yesterday morning in what may have been an act of arson. Just a few hours after the bishop celebrated Midnight Mass, the fire broke out. By the time it was extinguished the beautiful interior was completely gutted.

A video showing the destroyed cathedral can be seen here. The Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Dr Colm O'Reilly, has said he will restore St Mel's Cathedral in Longford , though it will cost over €2 million. Bishop O'Reilly said he celebrated midnight mass to a packed Cathedral. He said that it was an extraordinary contrast the next morning. Construction on St Mel's started in 1840 and it opened in September, 1856.

More on this story here.

Though details of any fundraising efforts have yet to emerge, the Diocese can be contacted as follows:-
The Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois
Diocesan Office,
Ballinalee Road.
Co. Longford.
Phone: +353 (0)43-3346432
Fax: +353 (0)43-3346833
Email: ardaghdi at

The Cathedral itself is a Neo-Classical structure begun in 1840 by Bishop William O'Higgins. The inspiration for the design by Joseph B. Keane was said to be the Madeleine Church in Paris, the Pantheon and St. John Lateran - although he executed a similar design for St. Mary's in Clonmel.

The cathedral is cruciform consisting of a nave, two transcripts, two aisles and a spacious sanctuary. The nave contains 24 large columns local limestone and windows by the noted Harry Clarke. The original high altar was of French marble. The erection of this building cost £60,000 which was a vast sum to collect during a time of evictions, persecutions and famine.

The completion of St. Mel's was deferred for ten years due to the effects of the famine. The roof and tower were completed under Dr. Kilduff who succeeded Dr. O'Higgins in 1853. Bishop Kilduff blessed the Cathedral on 24th September, 1856.

Longford Cathedral 'Before'

Under Bishop Woodlock, most noted for his contribution to the cause of the Catholic University, further additions were made and the Solemn Consecration took place on the 19th May, 1893, the fifth-third anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone. The belfrey was completed in 1860 after a design of John Bourke. The portico in 1893 to the design of the great George Ashlin.

Longford Cathedral 'After'

An Taisce, the Irish Heritage Trust, described it thus: "……… St. Mel's Cathedral, begun to the design of Joseph Keane in 1840. While the portico lacks the sophistication of Keane's great Dominican Pope's Quay Church in Cork, the interior, by contrast, is now regarded as noblest of all Irish Classical church interiors. It is designed in the style of an early Christian basilica, with noble Grecian Ionic columns and a curved apse. It also shares the remarkable distinction of being the only major Catholic Church in Ireland to have actually been improved by internal reordering, when the fussy later altar was removed and replaced by a simple modem table altar, which accords harmoniously with the early Christian style of the interior. The tower and portico give a striking approach to the town from Dublin."

Longford Sanctuary 'Before'

In the 1970s, the noted Cathedral wreckovator, Cathal Cardinal Daly, to whose credit Belfast and some of Armagh Cathedrals' present state can also be put, was Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise. The high altar and stalls were removed, leaving the Sanctuary without any clear focus, the present altar being too small to make any visual impact. The insertion of a tapestry to add impact to the 'President's Chair' where the high altar and tabernacle once stood, is singularly ineffective.

Longford Sanctuary 'After'

The words of Desmond, Cardinal Connell, who was Archbishop of Dublin at the time, during an interview with The Sunday Business Post, published on 4th March, 2001, come to mind. "Asked whether he had any plans to build a cathedral in Dublin. (At present, the Anglican Church of Ireland has two cathedrals in the capital – Christ Church, the diocesan cathedral, and St Patrick's, the national cathedral. The Catholic Church has only a `pro-cathedral') reresponded: ‘None whatsoever. If I had the wealth of Croesus itself, I would not build a cathedral because liturgy and architecture at the moment are in such confusion that anything that would be built at this stage would be rejected in a very short time.’"

The restoration of St. Mel's is greatly to be hoped for, both a physical and a moral restoration, an Irish Church rising from the ashes.

Bishop Colm O'Reilly, one of only a handful of Irish Bishops to have celebrated the Traditional Latin Mass publicly in recent years, has promised that St. Mel's will be restored but Bishop O'Reilly is 75 on 11th January, 2010. By that time, there will be three vacant Sees in Ireland (six, depending on your point of view). The question is whether the restoration of Longford Cathedral will be in the hands of another 'Godfather of Irish Sanctuaries' or a Bishop after the Holy Father's own heart. Only time will tell. Qualis Pastor, talis Parochia.

St. Mel of Ardagh pray for us!


truthisfree said...

The restoration of this building is the last thing that is needed in an area hit badly by present economic crisis. There are way too many, often half filled churches around the country. God is not in Bricks and mortar.

Doc Hannon said...

This is a fair point. I should say that large sections of this post and all of the commentary are by me and not Mark M.

It's also an easy thing for a Bishop who is one month away from the canonical retirement age to say. However, we shouldn't forget local pride, which is probably going to be a factor in the restoration, just as it was a factor in the original construction.

It is true that most of the Catholic Churches of Ireland - frequently majestic and just as frequently vainglorious - reflected the collective pride of the people quite as much as that of the prelates. The poor folk who could never aspire to grandeur in their homes could take a just pride in their Churches... THEIR Churches.

Consider the Cathedrals that were built before it: The Most Holy Trinity, Waterford (1793), Ss. Mary and Anne, Cork (1808), St. Mary, Dublin (1825), St. Patrick, Skibbereen (1826), Ss. Patrick and Colman, Newry (1829), The Assumption, Carlow (1833), St. Muredach, Ballina (1834), The Assumption, Tuam (1837), St. Aidan, Enniscorthy (1843), The Assumption, Killarney (1855). These could hardly have been built without massive grass-roots support.

The Cathedrals that immediately follow likewise: The Assumption, Kilkenny (1857), The Annunciation and St. Nathy, Ballaghaderreen (1860), Ss. Peter and Paul, Ennis (1861), St. John the Baptist, Limerick (1861), St. Peter’s, Belfast (1866), St. Eugene’s, Derry (1873), The Immaculate Conception, Sligo (1874), The Assumption, Thurles (1879), St. Colman, Cobh (1879).

You may say, and justifiably, how many loaves for the starving would these bricks have bought but, if the poor give up half a loaf for the sake of a Cathedral, should we not respect the generosity of the poor?

That's my point. Why should arrogant prelates wish to wreck the Sanctuaries built by the pennies of the poor and loved by the people? What motivates them to destroy - and to fight to the Supreme Court to maintain their right to wreck?

God is not in bricks and mortar but, if you consult the Old Testament accounts of the design for the Temple, he was just as obsessed with bricks and mortar as any nineteenth century Irish Bishop... or any nineteenth century Irish Catholic.

However, there is an excellent argument for using another large Church as a Pro-Cathedral. After all, Dublin, Belfast, Ennis and Skibbereen all have Pro-Cathedrals until the real Cathedral is built (or recovered). That's not such a bad idea.

The Raven (C. Corax) said...

"The restoration of this building is the last thing that is needed in an area hit badly by present economic crisis."
I would have thought that the skilled jobs that the restoration of the Cathedral would bring were exactly the sort of thing that an area hit badly by the economic crisis needs.

Convenor said...

I can see merit in each suggestion. The situation when the Cathedral was built is very different from that in which the Cathedral will be restored, spiritually, aesthetically, economically. I could easily see that one less Church in a country where Mass attendances are down 50% might make some sense but I don't think that the two Chapels of Ease in Longford Town Parish (which is actually called Templemichael and Ballymacormack), won't be able to cope with even 50% of the Catholic population indefinitely.

I incline to Cardinal Connell's view to do nothing in the present climate (and I don't think things have improved in the last 8 years.

Likewise, I think Des has a point about the significance of Cathedrals for local pride and morale and, as 'The Raven' says, for economic regeneration.

My own view would be that there's nothing wrong with a Pro-Cathedral. The difficulty is that the Bishop will probably want to continue living in Longford Town and the only other Church I can think of of a reasonable size is St. Mary's in Athlone. (Un)fortunately, due to re-ordering, the Sanctuary is empty enough to fit in a throne.

Anonymous said...

A great tragedy. The bishop hopes to receive assistasnce from Mel Gibson wehose mother was from Longford. At last the bishops call on traditionalists to rebuild the Church!

Anonymous said...

It now seems that the pillars are destroyed beyond repair and some of the sanctuary statuary was vaporised in the heat of the fire. There is some speculation that the 'restored' cathedral will not include new pillars... One tragedy following upon another...


Ancilla said...

Actually, I changed my mind. I published your link on my blog. I think your website deserves it.

Good job! God bless you!

tiberge said...

I have published a link to this story at my blog, GalliaWatch, which deals primarily with news from France. However, on occasion, I do write about other countries. And I try to follow the problems encountered by traditional Catholics in France, who are watching their heritage come under attack by so many forces hostile to Christianity.

Anonymous said...

What's the deal with French interest in Ireland? Not that I'm complaining, just curious.

Anonymous said...

Will the new St. Mel's be a monument to God or to Cardinal Daly?

Jim'll Fix It! said...

On the subject of restoration I would be extremely worried about anything that was done now to bring back 'former glory' to St. Mel's because we know that nobody in authority will propose the full restoration of the original Cathedral and nobody with any sense would propose restoring the terrible mish-mash that was intruded into the Cathedral under the excuse of the spirit of the Council.

Shandon Belle said...

You can see that the most recent developments in this Cathedral were a big wooly banner that covered over one statue and a bare wooden cross NOT crucifix. Is there ANYTHING in terms of subject, material, style or anything else that made them appropriate for that building?

Recorder said...

I really feel like writing a 'not in my name' letter to the Bishop saying that unless he is going to RESTORE the Sanctuary he needn't bother restoring the Cathedral. What is the point of restoring a completely ruined Cathedral to a state of half-ruin. I don't think I'll bother. I'm sure he or his liturgists are rubbing their hands at the chance to create a different kind of abomination of desolation to the desolation that's there now. My guess is that they will write "Cathal Daly I have outdone thee!" over the main door.

Convenor said...

This is the most recent comment by Mark as I write so I'm taking this occasion to thank him for acts of kindness, patience and generosity too many to mention over the past couple of years - although I would mention one in particular, which is the responsibility, sometimes the sole responsibility, for this and our other blogs. I pray that his present plans will come to a happy conclusion. God bless you!

Veronica Lane said...

How sad it is to think what will be made of this Cathedral when it is restored.