THESE pictures show for the first time the extent of the damage to the inside of St Mel's Cathedral in Longford following a devastating fire.
Gardai are finally expected to begin their forensic examination tomorrow as they attempt to discover the cause of the blaze on Christmas morning.
The damage was so extensive that authorities brought in a firm to secure the structure last week after it was deemed unsafe for the forensic team to enter, and these pictures indicate why that decision was made.
The beautiful columns that once supported the ornate roof appear beyond repair in some instances, while the charred remains of altars, pews and confessionals will make for distressing images for parishioners.
With scorch marks running through pulpits and altars, and linoleum and rubble piled up on the floor, the iconic cathedral is almost unrecognisable from the building that graced the town for more than 150 years.
"I was down there, but I wasn't allowed in," the Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise Dr Colm O'Reilly told the Irish Independent.
"However, I've seen as much as I want to see. I find it hard to look at the reality of what it's like now, to tell you the truth.
"It's not the kind of thing you want to be looking at, especially when you have to. It is just dreadful; it just shows you the power of fire."
The Diocesan Museum was among the areas gutted, with chalices from the 15th century lost, along with relics from the Stone Age, and ecclesiastical records, books and artefacts. The unique St Mel's Crozier was also lost in the blaze.
"The pictures remind me of pictures I've seen of blanket bombing during the Second World War," Dr O'Reilly said.
The pictures are circulating on the internet, including on a social networking site set up to remember the cathedral's glory days.
It is estimated that restoring the iconic cathedral to its former state will take up to five years, and could cost in excess of €8m, but Dr O'Reilly has indicated his determination to push ahead with the restoration.
Investigating officers said that they were keeping an open mind on the cause of the fire until the forensic examination had been completed.