The Cathedral of Saint Mel

Longford, Ireland

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Longford Cathedral, one of the finest Neoclassical buildings in Ireland, was reduced to ashes on Christmas morning 2009 by a fire, originating in an over-extension of the heating system. The fire could not immediately be brought under control because of water shortages caused by the frozen-over municipal supply during a period of particularly harsh weather. In the aftermath of the blaze, only the external walls of the cathedral survived, together with the campanile and portico. Internally, practically everything perished with the exception of some of the mosaic floors which had been laid on concrete foundations, and a number of the lateral altars.

The Bishop tours the site with members of the design team. (Photo: Irish Bishops Conference)

Securing the remains of the building was slowed by painstaking removal of the debris so as to recover as much as possible of the collection of some 500 historical items—including some important early medieval artifacts—which had been housed in a museum attached to the cathedral. Among the items recovered by a team of specialists from the National Museum of Ireland were the Shrine of St. Caillinn, which is largely intact, and a portion of the Crozier of St. Mel, an early iron hand-bell from Wheery, Co. Offaly and a thirteenth-century crozier made at Limoges in France. Lost, however, was the entire collection of vestments, penal crosses, altar vessels of pewter and silver, and works in paper. Some of Harry Clarke’s Celtic Revival/Art Déco stained glass happily survived the conflagration and has since been successfully restored.

The interior before the fire. (Photo: wikimediacommons.org)

Saint Mel’s was begun on May 22, 1840 by Bishop William O’Higgins (1829-1853) according to plans drawn by John Benjamin Keane (d. 1859). The cruciform plan, with nave separated from aisles by an Ionic colonnade and ending in a chancel apse, was inspired by the Basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome. Works ceased during the famine and resumed only in 1853 under Bishop John Kilduff (1853-1867). John Bourke added the Italianate campanile in 1863–loosely based on the Tower of the Winds—and continued the works after Keane’s death. The impeccably proportioned hexastyle Ionic portico, postitioned on a raised stepped base with pediment over, was added to the entrance front between 1889 and 1893 to plans drawn by George C. Ashlin (1837 – 1921), better known for his neo-Gothic work, especially as exemplified at Saint Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh (Queenstown), Co. Cork. The final building phase was undertaken by Bishop Bartholomew Woodlock (1879-1894), former rector of the Catholic University of Ireland. The cathedral was solemnly consecrated on May 23, 1893.

The building sits on a complex system of reversed arches that supports the colonnade on which the roof rests. The external walls are buttressed internally by a series of pilasters, also resting on a further system of inversed arches which extends beyond the external walls of the cathedral. Some of this system was exposed with the collapse of the wooden flooring.

The pedimental sculpture, designed by Ashlin, was executed by George Smyth of Dublin. The internal plasterwork was believed to have been carried out by Italian stuccodori who had worked at Carriglass Manor (1837). Much of the interior decoration was carried out under Ashlin. Longford Cathedral suffered the removal of its restrained classical high altar and choir stalls in 1976 and the installation of an unsympathetic solution by Richard Hurley and Wilfred Cantwell with furnishings provided by Ray Carrroll. Its overall effect left the internal colonnade without its liturgical focus. “The new altar, ambo, and bishop’s chair and the semi-circular row of canons’ seats [were] made of limestone ... [and] no attempt seems to have been made to secure harmony with the building.” These, too, perished in the flames along with the wall hangings of the Second Coming which vainly attempted to add a surrogate focal point to the apse.Initial estimates of two million euro for the restoration of the cathedral quickly escalated into the ten millions with the eventual bill quite likely to be more in the region of twenty million.

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Interactive Project Managers, a Dublin based enterprise, has been appointed to co-ordinate all groups involved in the restoration of the cathedral. The company is headed by Joan O’Connor, an architect, and directors Niall Meagher and Eileen Dolan. It has previously worked on public building projects such as Cork Courthouse, the Millennium Wing of the National Gallery of Ireland, and the Assay Office at Dublin Castle.

Details of the precise restoration have not yet been made public. A number of architectural firms (as of February 2011) were interviewed on their proposals for the project. Inevitably, approaches to the restoration differ: some proposed a true restoration in the Neoclassical style, others a “restoration” in a modern idiom with the shell of the building acting as an apocalyptic backdrop, while others suggested abandoning the site in favour of a completely new building. From many perspectives, the eventual restoration of Saint Mel’s Cathedral, seen by many as an iconic contest between les anciens et les moderns, will necessarily involve long term ecclesiastical and architectural implications. It will also come as a test to the limited conservation resources and experience available in Ireland, which have not yet had to confront a project with as many international dimensions as those inherent in the Longford Cathedral restoration project. It is, however, to be hoped that the Longford project will have sufficient expertise available to it so as to avoid the now all-too-evident mistakes made during the 1990s restoration of Cobh Cathedral, which clearly illustrates the dangers of insufficient historical research and conservation expertise.

Glenstal Abbey library designed by Richard Hurley & Associates (Photo: Richard Hurley and Associates)

Fitzgerald Kavanagh and Partners architects: Church of the Annunciation in Co. Wexford (Photo: Fitzgerald Kavanagh and Partners)

After months of “reflection,” it was announced, in conjunction with the celebrations for St. Mel’s day, that the contract for the restoration of Longford Cathedral had been awarded to Richard Hurley of Richard Hurley and Associates, as the lead designer, in alliance with Colm Redmond of FitzGerald, Kavanagh and Partners. The latter company claims experience that “covers office, retail, hotel, education, residential, urban design, industrial, historic buildings, mixed use, and leisure facilities.” While not explicitly referring to their ecclesiastical work (mainly for the Archdiocese of Dublin), the company has produced at least two churches, one at Huntstown, Co. Dublin, the other, tout en rond, at Clonard, Co. Wexford, both in an unrelieved modernist brutalism.

Richard Hurley, who worked on Longford Cathedral as long ago as 1976, is well known for his ecclesiastical work in Ireland for over forty years. Much of it successfully integrates an advanced reductionist modernism with a highly personalized vision of the liturgy, attributed to the Second Vatican Council; a domestic approach to worship seemingly inspired by early twentieth century archaeological concepts such as R. Krautheimer’s Domus Eccelsiae—since critically refined through a revisionism motivated by the absence of concrete historical examples; and a populist autochthony. Premiated examples of the recurring motifs of the genre may be admired at the Cathedral of Saint Mary and Saint Anne in Cork City, and at Saint Mary’s Oratory in Maynooth College, Co. Kildare, Ireland.

The fire of Christmas 2009 (Photo: wikimediacommons.org)

Referring to the often-destroyed Chartres (recte Orléans) Cathedral, Dr. Hurley said, at the announcement of contract signing for Saint Mel’s, that his team was approaching the restoration, “with the same ardour and belief that Saint Mel’s will rise again and live again at the centre of Catholic life in the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise,”—an aspiration wholly synchronized with his architectural mission to rescue the Second Vatican Council from the ashes. We await developments.

James O’Brien is a priest in Ireland.