The historic St Mel's Cathedral in Longford, destroyed by fire on Christmas Day, could take years to rebuild, at a cost of up to €10m, it emerged yesterday
It will be next week before forensic experts sift through the remains to try to determine the cause of the fire.
As shocked local people tried to come to terms with the destruction of the building in a mystery fire early on Christmas morning, many of them, along with the worldwide Longford diaspora, were offering their help to rebuild the county's iconic cathedral.
The building was gutted after a fire started in the back of the cathedral on Christmas morning, destroying the building and a museum, which housed priceless artefacts.
The Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Dr Colm O'Reilly, told the Sunday Independent the scale of the destruction was enormous but, fortunately, nobody was killed or injured in the blaze.
"We are going to rebuild it," he pledged.
The bishop agreed that it would not be an exaggeration to say that the rebuilding costs could amount to €10m.
The building was insured but already people were contacting him to offer help in its reconstruction.
"The sense of solidarity and commitment to the future is impressive," he said.
But money couldn't replace the artefacts and other treasured items lost in the massive blaze. These are believed to include the 10th-Century crozier of St Mel, which was uncovered 80 years ago in the ruin of the original cathedral in Ardagh. It was said to be "a priceless relic of exquisite craftsmanship".
The local fire service battled to combat the blaze -- but the bishop said that even if the other fire services had been called in to assist, the waters of the Shannon wouldn't have been able to put out the fire as it had taken hold so fiercely.
The bishop compared the fire to a bereavement and admitted yesterday: "It was a dreadful night."
Garda Inspector Joe McLoughlin from Longford said it could be next week before a forensic team moves in as the building is not safe. The inspector said he would not speculate if arson was involved because a lengthy garda investigation had yet to be carried out.
President Mary McAleese, who was returning from her Roscommon home with her husband Martin, stopped off in Longford yesterday to visit Bishop O'Reilly and, in a gesture of support when she heard of his plans to rebuild the cathedral, presented him with a piece of stained glass depicting St Patrick ordaining St Mel.
There was concern that weddings, funerals and other services that would have taken place at the cathedral are now in doubt indefinitely. However, for the moment, Masses are being said at the nearby Temperance Hall.
Building of the cathedral began in the 1840s and was completed in 1856. Completion of the cathedral was delayed by about 10 years because of the famine.
A fund to rebuild the cathedral is expected to be launched in the new year.