St Mel’s Cathedral located in the very centre of longford town, is the main historical attraction of the town overlooking all roads leading into Longford.
For over a century-and-a-half, St. Mel’s Cathedral has dominated the skyline of Longford town and provided a focal point for the Catholic community.
The original cathedral of the Diocese of Ardagh was in the village of Ardagh until the Reformation of the mid-1500s. St Mel’s was the brainchild of Bishop William O’Higgins (served 1829-53). The foundation stone was laid on the 19th May 1840 in the presence of a crowd of up to 40,000 people. The cathedral was completed in phases, over the course of 53 years.
There was a huge groundswell of support for the project, with even the children of the Diocese contributing money towards the statue of the Sacred Heart located on the front of the cathedral. During repair works in 2012, a chamber within the statue was discovered containing a list of the names of all the children who gave donations.
The design Bishop O’Higgins conceived was strongly influenced by his travels in Europe drawing inspiration from grand Neo-Classical churches, such as Madeleine Church in Paris and San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John’s Lateran) in Rome. John Benjamin Keane, a respected Irish architect, provided the original plans for the cathedral.
The walls and columns were complete by 1846, but with the onset of the Great Famine (1845-50) work was stopped. It was the task of O’Higgins’ successor Dr John Kilduff, (served 1853-67), to complete construction and he appointed John Bourke as architect. The cathedral was largely finished within three years, with the exception of the campanile (bell-tower) and portico. The cathedral was consecrated on 24th September 1856 and the bell-tower was finished by 1863 .
In 1889 George Ashlin, who was a colleague and son-in-law of the great Victorian architect A.W.N. Pugin , was commissioned by Bishop Woodlock to complete the front of the cathedral. By 1893 the grand entrance portico, with its impressive Ionic columns and the magnificent figurative frieze depicting the consecration of St. Mel as bishop by St. Patrick, was complete.
The interior of St. Mel’s is dominated by the arcade comprising 24 monumental and finely-detailed Ionic columns, which encloses the nave of the cathedral. The church is on a cruciform plan, with chapels in the side wings flanking the sanctuary and altar space. The original romantic organ and gallery were located high above the main entrance to the nave.
Light floods into the interior from windows in the side aisles and high-level clerestory windows. The transepts house two stained glass windows from the renowned Harry Clarke Studios, depicting Christ in Majesty in rich red tones to the eastern funerary chapel and the Blessed Virgin Mary in the west transept.
To the rear of the Cathedral was an area originally intended to be the Bishop’s palace, which recently held Cathedral offices and the Diocesan Museum. The museum featured a wide range of religious artefacts from the Diocese and abroad, including a crozier (bishop’s staff) from Limoges in France. Unfortunately, in the fire of 2009 most of the contents of the museum were destroyed. However, a small number of items survived including St. Caillin’s book shrine dating from the 16th Century. Fragments of St. Mel’s crozier also survived.
Early on Christmas morning in 2009, a fire broke out which devastated the interior of the cathedral. Nevertheless, there is an extensive programme of repair and restoration underway, which shall be completed in 2014.