A Nightmare Christmas Story – Tiernan Dolan
Letter from Bishop Colm
Recovery of Museum Artefacts
Words from Fr. Healy ADM
Christmas Day - 2009
Restoration Fund
News Updates
A Nightmare Christmas Story

Midnight 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 the impossible.

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.

“Watch 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.

Then drawing 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.

The sickening 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.

Onlookers shared 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.

Meanwhile at 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.