There was a large turnout in the parochial centre in St Mel’s College for the signing of contract documents signalling the commencement of work on St Mel’s Cathedral. The Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois Colm O’Reilly said that the efforts to date had now come to fruition: “Much time has been invested since then [the fire] in order to ensure that our planning and preparation process befits this enormous structural project.”
The committee have gone to great lengths to ensure that as much of the restoration can be kept local as possible. The contractors have undertaken to recruit at least 20 percent of their workforce from the local community. Where possible local suppliers are being used for materials.
St Mel’s cathedral opened its doors to the press prior to the signing of contracts that will see the place of worship restored to its pre-fire condition. Stripped back from its decorative beauty, the 19th century building still has an imposing majesty.
Structural steel scaffolding support the once imposing limestone pillars that were such a dominant feature of the building. The 26 pillars, originally quarried in Newtowncashel before being brought to Rathcline where the stonemasons gave them the distinctive finish, will be replaced by limestone from Co Carlow.
Denuded of the sculptures and decorative metalwork, the bare building still has a magnificence that confounds the blackened fire damaged stone. Although much of the marble in the building has been destroyed there are traces of it to allude to the former splendour.
The work that has taken place so far has hinted at the direction the restoration will take. There is a small section of lime plastering on the wall that illustrates that the renewed cathedral will be identical to what was there before the fire.
The handiwork of the craftsmen, who have been establishing the groundwork prior to the commencement of the manual labour, can bee seen around the building, but the enormity of the task ahead is obvious.
The restoration of Longford’s iconic monument will see the creation of over 100 jobs. Bishop Colm O’Reilly formally signed the contract documents this morning for the rebuilding of one of the Midlands most distinguished buildings.
The bishop said that the history of the great building has seen moments of night and dawn, and that the contract signing was “definitely a moment of dawn”.
A consortium of firms from Galway and Longford, GemPurcell, has been awarded the contract. This first phase of restoration will see that bulk of the work done on the cathedral. It will undergo extensive repairs including the replacement of 26 limestone columns and pilasters, repairing external stonework around windows and replacing internal plaster up to ceiling level.
As part of the undertaking, the St Mel’s Cathedral Project Committee has arranged two training programmes to be run in conjunction with the restoration. The schemes aim to educate participants in lime plastering, ecclesiastical decoration, stone fixing, brass and metalwork.
Chairman of the restoration committee, Seamus Butler, said that the renovation work presents a great opportunity for the development of an education and training facility in the county.
“At the moment there are many conservation specialists in Ireland, but no training for the building conservation skills like lime plastering,” he said.
“This could be an opportunity to establish a permanent conservation training facility. A legacy of this could be establishment of an All Ireland School of Conservation in Longford, and the Connolly Barracks is an ideal location for such a venture.”
Mr Butler said that the committee believed that because of the support of the local community there was an onus on keeping as much of the work as possible local.
“The committee were dedicated to get as much as possible for the local community. This project will take time, but we feel that we can keep the contractors on track to have it completed in 13 months and have Christmas eve mass celebrated in the cathedral in 2014.”
Speaking at the launch Bishop Reilly said that the St Mel’s restoration is the most significant cathedral restoration project in Western Europe. Recalling the illustrious history of the building, the bishop pointed out that when the sod was turned on the site in 1840 there were 40,000 people in attendance. He also said that the contract signing meant that the cathedral was on its way back to great days.
This phase of construction deals with the roof, floor, columns and lime plastering. The second phase, which will run in parallel with the later segment of the primary stage, will deal with the interior design and the final phase will focus on landscaping. Bishop Reilly said that the contribution of the late Richard Hurley in his role as architect in the project was invaluable.
“He was a professional with great pride in his work and enthusiasm for the project.”
Spokesperson for the contractor, Kevin Fay, said that GemPurcell is delighted to be part of the project.
“We are looking forward to working with the bishop and the committee. We are absolutely committed to the restoration.
“For me personally this has a particular resonance. I served as an altar boy here, I have sang in the choir, and my father hung the doors in the the cathedral in the 1960s, so I know what St Mel’s means to the people of Longford.”
Mr Fay also spoke of the contribution of the original architect on the project, Dr Richard Hurley:
“He has delivered a project that is contemporary, pastoral and has applications in the future.”
One of the most touching parts of the document signing ceremony was when a group of pupils from St Joseph’s National school read extracts from letters sent by children to Bishop O’Reilly offering condolences on the destruction of the cathedral. The group also read out poems written by students about the fire.
Work now commences on the site with Christmas Eve 2014 pencilled in for the first Mass.