In the early hours of Christmas morning 2009 the people of Longford woke to the horrific sight of their cathedral on fire. They had celebrated Midnight Mass just a few hours before in the grandest building in the town, and now it was violently consumed by flames which left the building a gutted shell by daybreak.
Apart from the loss of the liturgical space, Longford also lost its important diocesan museum which was located in the former presbytery. Such diocesan museums are an extreme rarity in Ireland. The presbytery was built into the back of the structure according to the original plans. Among the treasures damaged and there were items of national importance – the so-called ‘crozier of St Mel’ and the Shrine of St Caillin. The thousand year old crozier was severely damaged but the Shrine of St Cailin survived despite considerable damage. The collection of historic vestments was completely lost. For genealogists, there is some relief in that although the old church records were destroyed, they have been microfilmed.
St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford was begun in 1840 under the direction of Bishop William O’Higgins. It was designed by John Benjamin Keane, a Dublin-born architect who had worked as an assistant to Richard Morrison. Morrison’s father, John Morrison, also an architect, was based in Midleton in the 1770s and 1780s. But that’s not the real Midleton connection with St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford. (Note: John B Keane is the name given by the Irish Architectural Archive, but recent news reports give the name as Joseph B Keane! I’ll stick with the IAA version until I am reliably corrected! And, no, I’m not aware of any family connection between the architect and the more recent Listowel publican and author, John B Keane.)
Anyone who knows their Irish history will be aware that 1840 was not the most auspicious timing for starting such a large project, much of it financed by the pennies of the poor. From the autumn of 1845 to 1850 Ireland was stricken by the Great Famine caused by widespread potato blight, and the money for building the cathedral was diverted to more urgent causes. Once the famine ended, the work resumed, but Keane had long left the scene and died in debt in 1859. His successors included John Bourke who designed the cathedral’s belfry that has presided over over the town since 1860.
Then in the 1880s it was decided to embellish the rather plain front, and the architect of the fine portico was none other than George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921). From 1888 to 1893 the portico was built and some interior furnishings such as altars were designed and supervised by Ashlin. This is where the Midleton connection comes in. Ashlin was the third son of John Musson Ashlin JP (of Rush Hill, Wandsworth, Surrey, England) and Dorinda Coppinger, who came from Carrigrenane House in, Little Island near Glounthaune, County Cork. Sadly this house no longer exists. Dorinda was part of a clan of very influential Catholics who supplied a Bishop of Cloyne in the person of William Coppinger, and the curate of Midleton, Stephen Coppinger, who introduced the Presentation Sisters to the town. And, yes, Dorinda Coppinger was related to the Joseph Coppinger discussed in a previous post.
George Ashlin became apprenticed to Edward Pugin, the son of the more celebrated Augustus WN Pugin (the man who designed the interiors of the Palace of Westminster and its clock tower (also popularly called the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben). Primarily considered an architect of the gothic revival, it turns out that Ashlin was accomplished enough to work in the classical style too. He went on to become Edward Pugin’s business partner, and even married Edward’s sister, Mary – so he was the son-in-law of the more celebrated Augustus Pugin, who had died in 1852. With Edward Pugin and Thomas Coleman, Ashlin designed St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh (then Queenstown), one of the last sights Irish emigrants saw when they left the country from Cork Harbour.
GC Ashlin’s mother held property in Midleton, where she had several relatives living. Indeed the Coppingers were the wealthiest Catholics in the town in the early and middle nineteenth century. Ashlin’s oldest brother was John Coppinger Ashlin, who lived at Castleredmond House on……Ashlin Road (!). I walked to school along that road every day! It was these family connections to Midleton that led Ashlin to be commissioned to design Holy Rosary Catholic Church in 1893, and to supervise its construction from 1894 to 1896, and then again when the spire was completed in 1907-1908 Between these dates GC Ashlin designed the finest bank building in Midleton – the redbrick Dutch renaissance style Munster and Leinster Bank, now the Allied Irish Bank at the northern end of Main Street.
Today, Saturday 20th December 2014 will be long remembered in Longford town as the day the people of the town were allowed to enter and view their newly restored cathedral. Five years after the fire, the Cathedral of St Mel also saw the celebration of its first Mass. Although the interior was damaged, Ashlin’s great portico seems to have suffered only minor damage. It now welcomes the people of Longford back into their resurrected cathedral.
Well done to everyone who contributed to the restoration of the ‘Longford Phoenix!’