THE team behind the painstaking restoration of the burned-out shell of St Mel's Cathedral in Longford have vowed to turn it into a 21st century place of worship.
The Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, Dr Colm O'Reilly, vowed that in four years' time the community would celebrate Christmas in the cathedral, proudly restored to its former glory after a devastating fire last year.
But Dr O'Reilly revealed they were under no illusions as to the length of time it will take and the steep cost of restoring the historic building, which was originally commissioned just before the Famine gripped the country.
"We want it restored and well-restored, it will be a long journey but step by step we are making headway," Dr O'Reilly said.
He used his Christmas homily to tell his congregation that a design team was currently redesigning the interior of the cathedral.
"Four Christmases from now we will be returning to it for the Mass of Christmas Night, God willing," said Dr O'Reilly.
"We need to make these times in which we await our return times of hope and renewal of faith for the community. Then there will be a truly joy-filled Christmas back in St Mel's Cathedral."
Fr Tom Healy, administrator at the Longford parish, has cautioned it might take five years for the full restoration project -- which will mount to millions of euro.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire the walls were propped up, a temporary roof erected and a team of conservationists called in.
They trawled the ruins in the hope of finding remnants of the 500 artefacts from the adjoining burnt-out diocesan museum.
"We are now redesigning the cathedral for future generations, while it is dark and damp at the moment, it is going to stand for hundreds of years," Fr Healy said.
Some of the new options include solar energy, rain-water harvesting, a bookshop and possibly utilising the crypt area, located under the building.
A year on from the horrific accidental blaze, caused by old material in a chimney flue catching fire, the bishop said the newly-restored Harry Clarke Studio Windows were a "harbinger of hope".
But Dr O'Reilly warned the loss of the materials conserved in the diocesan museum had been "horrendous".
"Things that had survived a thousand years and in a few hours on Christmas night -- they were all lost," he said.
"That was a real loss to the country. The crozier of St Mel's that would be compared with the better known objects such as the cross of Cong."
Dr Andy Halpin, assistant keeper in the Irish antiquities division of the National Museum of Ireland, explained that conservation work would be required to stabilise the objects which had plunged two floors to the basement.
"There are 177 objects and with the degree of damage that will take quite a while. Unfortunately, due to our own staffing constraints, we are not able to do that work but are happy to facilitate it," he said.
A conservator, funded by the diocese, will have to be taken on.
The 10th-century crozier of St Mel's, patron of the diocese, was almost entirely destroyed with just fragments of the bishop's staff remaining.
Yet, another precious object, the book shrine of St Caillin dating to 1536 has "survived remarkably well".
Dr Halpin explained the surface of the wooden box, covered with metal and decorated with semi-precious stones, was "badly damaged".
"It will never look like it did but it will be recognisable for what it is."
There is no trace of the bell of St Caillin but an early medieval bell from Wheery, Co Offaly, survived in fairly good condition.
He said it was impossible to reverse the damage caused to a hoard of recovered prehistoric stone axes and bronze spearheads.
"The real issue is there are some materials in the museum sensitive to fire -- books, items of paper and vestments. They had no hope of surviving," Dr Halpin said.