On Christmas Morning, 2009, the people of Longford woke up to the devastating news that their beloved St Mel's Cathedral was engulfed by flames. A fault in the heating system took hold during the small hours. Mercifully, no-one was injured, but, during one of the harshest winters in memory and in the midst of a deep recession, the disaster was a real kick in the teeth for Longford. The local Bishop, Colm O'Reilly, was heartbroken. He wept openly on the RTÉ News. But he also determined that this 170 year old landmark would be rebuilt.
In The Longford Phoenix, RTÉ's Midlands Correspondent, Ciarán Mullooly, and Would You Believe? filmmaker, Birthe Tonseth, chart the long and arduous process of transforming the cathedral from a roofless ruin back to its former glory.
Over the last five years, master craftsmen and women from all over Ireland have come together with people from the local community to work on one of the largest restoration projects in Europe. Ancient skills - lime-plastering, masonry, carpentry and glazing - have had to be re-learned and precious building materials sourced from far and wide, in order to replicate the cathedral's ruined features. Twenty-eight enormous limestone pillars have been replaced; the distinctive lime-plaster barrel-vaulted ceiling has been totally recreated and the priceless Harry Clarke stained glass windows restored. The new St Mel's also has a new 7.5 ton Carrara marble altar and some very modern stained glass windows. But will the people of Longford like these new features? Many of them had a deep affection for the old cathedral and may not welcome change.
The original was built with the pennies of the poor during the famine era. Its first stones were laid soon after Catholic Emancipation, in the 1840s, but the church was not completed and consecrated until 1893, because of the impact of the famine and emigration.
The current five-year €30 million restoration has been funded largely by insurance, so fund-raising was not the biggest issue. There were, however, those who questioned the wisdom of re-building a vast cathedral during a recession, at a time when church-going is in decline in Ireland and that amount of money could arguably be better spent. So, what will be the new cathedral's place in the community and in the hearts of the people of Longford? Bishop Colm and his successor, Bishop Francis Duffy, are determined that the new St Mel's will be more than a reconstruction of the previous one: in form and function, it should represent the renewal and future of the Church in Ireland. But is that how the people themselves will see it?
In 2014, they queued in their droves for an early glimpse inside, on the first occasion when they were allowed in to view the work in progress. But will those same people keep coming, once the cathedral re-opens for good this Christmas?
The Longford Phoenix is full of characters and stories. Many local people, for instance, see the survival, unscathed, of a Holy Family painting, St Caillin's book shrine and the Blessed Sacrament in a tabernacle as nothing short of miraculous, given that, just metres away, limestone columns crumbled in the 1000+ degree heat. Miraculous or not, those items have become symbols of hope.
For the last five year's Ciarán Mullooly and Birthe Tonseth have painstakingly captured the key moments in the phoenix-like re-birth of St Mel's from the ashes of the old cathedral. Their hour-long special documentary, to be broadcast on 30 December, chronicles the entire process, from the scenes of grief and devastation, at Christmas 2009, to the triumphant inaugural Midnight Mass, simulcast on RTÉ Television and Radio, this Christmas Eve at 11pm. always assuming the reconstruction work is completed on time. The Cathedral will then also broadcast a second Mass on Christmas morning to a European-wide audience, via eight different broadcasters.
As the destruction and restoration of St Mel's has demonstrated, a cathedral is much more than a building. The people of Longford are the human stones of the Church and when St Mel's reopens for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve - five years to the day after the fire - it will be filled with local parishioners, overjoyed to have their beloved church back.
The phoenix will be re-born.