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Monday 20 May 2019

'If we can rise from the ashes, so can you' - St Mel's offers hope to ravaged Notre-Dame

Tiernan Dolan in St Mel’s Cathedral with one of his photos. Picture: Mark Condren
Tiernan Dolan in St Mel’s Cathedral with one of his photos. Picture: Mark Condren
The cathedral in flames on Christmas Day, 2009. Photo: ENDA SHEEHAN
The restored building. Photo: STEVE HUMPHREYS

Allison Bray

Retired teacher Tiernan Dolan had a horrible sense of déjà vu when he tuned into the six o'clock news on Monday night and watched in horror as an inferno engulfed Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.

The heartbreaking sense of loss and helplessness came flooding back as he recalled the horrific fire that burned before his eyes when St Mel's Cathedral in Longford went up in flames on Christmas Day 2009.

Just hours before, he and hundreds of other parishioners had braved the snow, ice and -14C bitter cold to attend Midnight Mass.

"It was a lovely Mass," he recalled. "Coming out of the cathedral, it was like walking into a living Christmas card.

"The place was magical. You were on an absolute high."

But that high came crashing down before the dawn of Christmas Day when a chimney fire sparked a devastating conflagration that ripped through the 175-year-old landmark.

Living just across the street, he witnessed the horror unfold in front of him.

"You went from an absolute high to rock bottom," he said.

"You could see the yellow and orange flames dancing in the sky. It was horrible. It was like watching your best friend lying in a hospital bed on life support."

To make matters worse, the big freeze of 2009-2010 conspired against the best efforts of firefighters to tackle the blaze. Fire hydrants froze, costing them precious time in battling the fire.

When Christmas Day dawned, the cathedral was in ruins. Gone was the 10th-­century crozier of St Mel and other priceless artefacts. The heat from the inferno had melted marble fittings. The cathedral roof was destroyed, the wooden floor sank into the crypt below. Ornate tapestries, paintings and statues were also destroyed.

Outside the cathedral, locals wept openly on the street, as they did in Paris last week.

And like Our Lady of Paris is to the people of the French capital, so is St Mel's to the people of Longford.

"It was more than just the building. It was part of the identity of Longford," said Mr Dolan.

For many locals, the cathedral was where they were christened, had their first communions and confirmations, got married and paid their final respects to loved ones. James Joyce's parents married there in 1890.

Even for non-parishioners, it holds a special pride of place. It adorns the crest of not only the local GAA club, but the local football and cricket teams as well.

So when Notre-Dame went up in flames last week, the people of Longford knew exactly what Parisians, indeed the French nation, were going through, Mr Dolan said.

But they also know what it is like to rise from the ashes.

Ironically, in his Christmas Eve homily at the cathedral, Bishop Colm O'Reilly described an arson attack on a convent in nearby Tubberclair, Co Westmeath, in 1642. But his message was one of hope that springs from darkness. Despite the setback, the nuns' faith kept them going.

And five years after the fire, the people of Longford had their faith restored when the cathedral reopened in time for Christmas 2014 following a massive €30m restoration.

Mr Dolan, an amateur photographer, captured the transformation in 25,000 photographs, having access to the site during the restoration.

His message to the people of Paris is simple: "If we can rise from the ashes, so can you."

This sentiment is echoed by former parish priest Fr Tom Healy, who stood in his dressing gown and watched helplessly as the fire engulfed his beloved cathedral almost a decade ago. He too was deeply saddened when he watched the Notre-Dame fire unfold.

"It brought back a lot of memories. It was a very sinister situation, a beautiful heritage cathedral that was destroyed in front of your eyes," he said.

And as St Mel's is to the people of Longford, "I know Notre-Dame has a massive place in the heart of France".

But he also believes Notre-Dame will rise again. "There is hope," he said.

Local councillor Seamus Butler was the chairman of what was called the St Mel's Cathedral Project Committee.

Such was the daunting prospect of restoring the cathedral to its former glory, members didn't initially even dare use the term "restoration" in the committee's title out of fear it might not happen, he said.

Those fears were unfounded. But he knows only too well the mammoth task facing the restoration of Notre-Dame.

Even though the damage done to St Mel's was on a different scale to the devastation wreaked on Notre-Dame, it was nevertheless hard to witness, he said. "It was like you dropped a bomb inside it. You could see the sky and crypt below."

But fast forward to today and the cathedral is now a state-of-the-art marvel.

"The message is that it can be done. If we can do it in Longford then, by God, they can do it in Paris," he said.

Irish Independent

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