Revamped St Mel's Cathedral has mass appeal for tourists
IT was almost razed to the ground by a fire that ripped through the historic cathedral shortly after Christmas midnight Mass in 2009. But now, just four months after its grand re-opening, thousands of tourists from all over the country are flocking to St Mel's Cathedral in Longford, bringing a major boost to local businesses and sparking a rare rise in Mass attendances.
The revamped Cathedral is attracting retirement groups, schools tours and bus loads of visitors from across the country to Longford.
Parish priest Fr Brendan O'Sullivan said the reopening has been a "great blessing" and "uplifting moment" for the diocese of Ardagh Clonmacnoise.
He told the Sunday Independent: "Many thousands have filed through already from Kerry, Cork, Donegal and Dublin and we have a lot of tour groups booked in over the next couple of months, which is absolutely marvellous.
"We've had active age groups, nursing home groups, people on retreats and school confirmation groups," added Fr Brendan, who was the first person to be called after the cherished cathedral became engulfed in flames hours after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in 2009.
The catastrophic flames destroyed all but the portico (porch), bell tower and the main walls and left the building a burnt-out shell.
An investigation carried out by gardai and insurance forensic experts established that the fire started in an old chimney at the rear of the Cathedral and spread to the sacristy.
It was concluded to have been entirely accidental.
"It was a devastating blow to us, as you can imagine, but we kept our feet on the ground and worked forward," said Fr Brendan, adding that "rising from the ashes has been a wonderful experience".
Local restaurants and cafés have noticed benefits since the official reopening on December 20 last year.
"Our new tourists are spending a little time visiting our town, visiting our shops and they are all eating locally, which is a big boost for our hospitality and business sectors," said Fr Brendan.
A noticeable increase in Mass attendance has also been linked to tourism.
Last Sunday, while celebrating Mass, Fr Brendan asked the congregation at St Mel's to raise their hand if they were a tourist.
"We had about 80 visitors so it's just about instilling an awareness in the local people that we must give everyone a warm welcome," he told the Sunday Independent.
"We were so busy during preparation for the opening that we didn't think too much about the aftermath but the community is very touched to see new friends at Mass, it has all been very positive. We really want everyone to enjoy the experience," added Fr Brendan.
Although St Mel's was built more than 170 years ago, the architects selected to design the new cathedral pieced it together using just a small number of drawings and photographs.
The craftsmen involved brought back a huge amount of traditional skills that hadn't been used for a long time, to recreate the massive limestone columns and exquisite plastering work on the ceiling as well as to repair the mosaics and iconic altars.
New Stations of the Cross were also been hand-crafted from stone and finished with subtle colouring, and are now embedded in the walls.
The newly installed pipe organ, made of oak and mahogany, utilises the acoustic characteristics of the building.
When asked how tourists are reacting to the interior, Fr Brendan said there is a great sense of "awe and wond er".
"On the way in we have pictures of the devastation of 2009 but then they open the main doors and arrive in to the beauty and splendour, which has been created by the artists and craftspeople; it's nothing short of spell bounding," he said.
Despite the rise in visitors, Fr Brendan, who also acts as a tour guide, stressed that he doesn't want the Cathedral to become "just a museum".
"One of the things we are trying to integrate into the tours is a little bit of spirituality so that it doesn't just become a museum.
"It is a 'House of God' and a 'House of Prayer' and I think it's very important that we bring a little bit of prayer into the visits and the groups," he added.
The reconstruction of St Mel's created up to 100 jobs and contributed an estimated €7.5m to the State's tax revenues.
In total, €30m was spent on the project, with the majority coming from the church's insurers, Alliance. Another €1m was donated in voluntary funds.
On the day of the reopening, Colm Redmond, the lead architect, described the completed work as "a remarkable achievement".
"It is my hope that the community will embrace their cathedral as the return of an old friend, as they recognise features they have known for many years, while welcoming the new intervention as part of a new phase of life of the cathedral," he said.