Sunday 25 August 2019

Alan O'Keeffe: 'Alert at incense in church that rose from ashes'

Notre Dame's blaze raises fears for the many ancient churches throughout Ireland

FLASHBACK: St Mel’s Cathedral was destroyed by fire on Christmas Day 2009. The rebuilt cathedral reopened in December 2014
FLASHBACK: St Mel’s Cathedral was destroyed by fire on Christmas Day 2009. The rebuilt cathedral reopened in December 2014

Alan O'Keeffe

Smoke from burning incense triggered automatic public address announcements during a recent Mass in St Mel's Cathedral.

"Please evacuate the building," declared an authoritative voice repeatedly but worshippers in Longford stood their ground as incense clouds drifted heavenwards.

St Mel's is probably the safest church building in Ireland since it was restored after a huge fire destroyed the cathedral on Christmas Day, 2009.

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The automatic voice announcements were part of a range of sophisticated measures installed in the restored building.

The recent incense-triggered alert was recalled by Seamus Butler, who was chairman of the committee involved in the €30m restoration project.

"It sounded like a voice you would hear on a sat-nav. We've got one of the most modern cathedrals now," he said.

The burning of Notre Dame in Paris last Monday brought back memories of the cathedral fire in Longford.

The fire had spread rapidly through the roof of the Irish cathedral.

"The fire in the roof in Notre Dame did not spread as quickly because there was solid stone underneath the roof timbers," said Mr Butler.

"In St Mel's, the roof was a plaster-lath barrow vault so the fire burned straight through quite quickly."

The restored Longford cathedral has fire breaks installed in the roof to prevent rapid spreading of flames. It also has fire-retardant insulation. The very sensitive fire detection system monitors the entire building.

More than €1m was raised by the public and €28m was paid out by the insurance company. Large increases in fire insurance premiums were imposed afterwards on churches throughout the land.

There are now also tighter controls on the public lighting of candles and there are rules governing the use of straw in Christmas mangers.

The survival of a painting of the holy family in temperatures of 900C in the Longford fire was viewed by some people as a miracle and it receives considerable attention these days from members of the congregation, said Mr Butler, who is also Fianna Fail chairman of the Longford municipal area.

Dr Gary Carville, communications director and archivist for the Catholic diocese of Clogher, said cathedrals had hugely symbolic significance in all dioceses.

The upkeep and maintenance of many large mainly 19th century buildings is an ongoing challenge and the Notre Dame fire will be very much in the minds of those responsible for reviewing safety measures throughout the country, he said.

The Church of Ireland cares for much older church buildings throughout the island, including some of the most venerable of the nation's cathedrals.

A spokeswoman for the Church of Ireland said: "There are a great many very old buildings in the care of local congregations all over Ireland. The conditions of these buildings are regularly assessed. But every old building presents a challenge in terms of the fire issue that arose in Notre Dame.

"The possibility of retro-fitting fire prevention and fire control measures can be costly for groups of parishioners and difficult to implement.

"However, the important thing is for everyone to be conscious of these issues with public safety always to the fore," she said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dail there were no plans for a review of fire systems in Ireland's heritage properties but it "could be a good idea" and he said he would consult with the Ministers of Housing and Local Government and for Heritage.

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