Heritage sites of Co. Longford

St. Mel’s Cathedral (RC), Longford

St. Mel’s Cathedral in Longford was built between 1840 and 1863. John Butler Keane was the architect responsible for the design and the foundation stone was laid in May 1840. Keane died in 1859 and prior to this in 1854 architect John Bourke took charge of the project. He completed Keane’s original design and added a steeple to his own design, both of which were completed by 1863. The contractor responsible for the build under Bourke was John Mullins.

Between 1889 and 1893 architect George Coppinger Ashlin, along with builder Meade, added the Ionic portico and some interior furnishings, including the altar, stalls, communion rail etc., at a total cost of £5680.

Stone from William Allan’s limestone quarry in Creeve, Co. Longford (leased from Bernard Martin) was used for ashlar work in St. Mel’s. There were three limestone quarries located about 1 km east of Longford town at Creeve, which were worked up until the early twentieth century. Visean limestones were quarried at this location; generally thinly bedded (2.5 inches to 3 feet thick) dark grey limestones being succeeded by thicker beds (up to 18 ft thick) of brachiopod-crinoidal bioclastic limestones. From the upper beds flags of 30 feet square or more could be procured and from the lower beds blocks 10 x 6 ft could be raised. In 1952 considerations were made to reopen the quarries for lime.

The portico is of Lecarrow limestone from Co. Roscommon. The quarry, which is still in operation today, is located northwest of Lecarrow. It was extensively worked for valuable, high quality building stone. The grey, crystalline Visean limestone is regularly bedded; the beds varying from 2 to 4 ft in thickness. Monumental Dublin sculptor George Smith carved the pediment from Portland Stone.

Blue limestone from the Cashel quarry near Lanesborough in Co. Longford was used for the original interior structural columns. These columns were face-bedded despite the stonemason arguing with the architect that this was a poor decision. This pale bluish-grey Visean limestone cost about 2s. 6d. per ton in 1858.

On Christmas eve in 2009 a fire, which raged for nearly two days, destroyed the roof, the interior timbers of the nave, and the 28 structural Ionic Irish blue limestone columns, as well as damaging the 38 pilasters, copings, window surrounds, pad stones and corbels to the campanile. The high level of damage to the stone was attributed by Carrig Conservation International Ltd. to the use of face bedded limestone in the original construction, which suffered as a result of exposure to extremes of hot and cold temperatures and excessive moisture during and after the fire.

Carrig Conservation International Ltd. was responsible for the restoration of St. Mel’s. The main contractor was Purcell Construction and the limestone was supplied by Kilkenny Limestone. The limestone for the restoration came from County Carlow, Stone Development’s quarry at Old Leighlin, and  the 675 tons of finished and hand crafted elements required the quarrying of over ten thousand tons of limestone. The replacement columns from Old Leighlin are not face-bedded like the originals but cut perpendicular to bedding. The embedded stations of the cross were hand crafted from Bath stone for the restored cathedral by Ken Thompson and his son Matthew of Ballycotton, Co. Cork. The floor of the cathedral was paved with Old Leighlin Limestone and cream-coloured Moleanos Limestone from Fatima in Portugal.

St. Mel’s Cathedral re-opened on Christmas Eve in 2014. The restoration received several awards, including the Irish Building and Design Awards 2015 “Building Project of the Year” and “Interior Architectural Project of the Year”; the RWI Architecture Awards 2015, winner of “Public Choice” award, Best Conservation/Restoration and Best Universal Design Project; the Fit Out Awards 2015, Conservation Project of the Year and overall Project of the year; and the Property Industry Excellence Awards 2015, Winner of Property Conservation Award.

Further reading:

Geology of Co. Longford

The oldest rocks in Co. Longford are those in the north of the county where Ordovician rocks comprise a succession of sandstones and shales. Towards the end of the Ordovician a different group of sediments (coloured grey on the map) were deposited in a deepish ocean, the Iapetus Ocean, which was fed with sands and muds by rivers flowing off the ever-nearing continental margins. This later suite of Ordovician and Silurian sediments are grouped together. These make up an inlier, the Longford-Down Inlier, where older rocks are surround by younger rocks, and this extends northeastwards. Only the western part of the inlier is exposed in the county near Granard, between Lough Gowna and Lough Kinale.

Some small patches of Devonian sandstones and conglomerates are found near Drumlish and make up Corn Hill nearby. These rocks are the products of sedimentation in a semi-arid environment, meandering through which were temporary rivers which filled during flash floods. These waters carried coarse cobbles and pebbles, as well as sands, southwards and these make up the Old Red Sandstone with its characteristic purple to rust colour.

At the end of the Devonian marine conditions returned to Ireland as it was slowly flooded by an ocean whose shoreline migrated northwards over many millions of years. In this ocean limestone was deposited and it is possible to find the fossilised remains of the many beautiful and diverse life-forms that lived in it. Two types of limestone were formed. Shelf limestones formed horizontal bands or beds of grey stone, while mud mound limestones formed upstanding ‘knolls’ or bumps on the seafloor or in today’s landscape. The mud mounds are much like modern-day reefs except that there are few corals to bind the lime muds together. They are thought to have been held together with a sticky mass of algae, which survived long enough to allow the stone to form. Recently a study of fossil cephalopods, a type of squid closely related to the modern Nautilus, has shown that the mud mounds at Mullaghwornia in Longford formed in water depths of between 50 and 200 metres.

Rocks younger than Lower Carboniferous do not occur in the county and much of the underlying bedrock is obscured by a generous covering of glacial till or boulder clay. This was deposited in a number of events during the last Ice Age. It is thought that ice developed at least four times in Ireland in the last 2 million years and much of the county would have been smothered under several kilometres of ice. As it moved over Ireland the ice was able to gouge and erode the rock surface and the material was pulverised into small pieces. When the climate became milder the ice melted and the rocks crushed up in the ice were dumped. Over the last 10,000 years soils developed on the glacial tills and as they contain a high proportion of limestone the soils are generally good for agricultural use.

Map legend: Geological Map of Limerick (based on GSI 1:1,000,000 map 2003). Pink: Ordovician; Grey: Ordovician & Silurian; Beige: Devonian sandstones and conglomerates; Pale blue: Lower Carboniferous limestone.