VIDEO: Gardaí continuing to investigate West Cork convent fire

Sleeping bags were found in the former Mercy Heights School building to the rear of the campus - a building which escaped damage.
VIDEO: Gardaí continuing to investigate West Cork convent fire

The scene after the fire at the former Convent of Mercy building and attached church in Skibbereen, Co Cork. Picture: Denis Boyle

Gardaí investigating a massive blaze which gutted a landmark convent and chapel in West Cork have appealed for witnesses as their forensic examination is set to continue for a second day.

A garda spokesman said they are still keeping an open mind on the cause of the blaze which destroyed the former convent and chapel on the grounds of the former Sisters of Mercy campus on the Cork Rd in Skibbereen, on Tuesday.

Sleeping bags were found in the former Mercy Heights School building to the rear of the campus - a building which escaped damage.

But garda investigations into what caused the fire which gutted the two interconnected buildings will take more time.

Forensic experts spent yesterday combing through the remains of the buildings and specialists are being drafted in to assist in the examination which is expected to continue into Thursday.

 The chapel of the former Sisters of Mercy convent which was gutted by fire on Tuesday afternnon in Skibbereen, West Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan
The chapel of the former Sisters of Mercy convent which was gutted by fire on Tuesday afternnon in Skibbereen, West Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

Gardai said they would like to hear from anyone who was in the Cork St area of Skibbereen between 3.15pm and 4.45pm on Tuesday, and for anyone with camera footage of the area between those times, to contact Clonakilty Garda Station on 023 882 1570.

Firefighters from Skibbereen, Bantry and Schull spent several hours tackling the blaze after the alarm was raised just after 4pm on Tuesday. There were no injuries.

 The former Convent of Mercy building. Picture: Denis Boyle
The former Convent of Mercy building. Picture: Denis Boyle

The fire broke out less than two weeks after Cork County Council granted planning permission for a €10m commercial and residential redevelopment of the site.

Remcoll 3 Ltd was granted permission to renovate and revamp the chapel, to include space for hot-desking, to convert the convent into seven apartments, to convert the former Mercy Heights School into office space, and to build a four-storey apartment block with 52 apartments.

It's not clear if the fire will affect the development proposals. The architects who handled the planning application did not respond to requests for comment.

The proposed development on the site of the former Sisters of Mercy convent in Skibbereen
The proposed development on the site of the former Sisters of Mercy convent in Skibbereen

A document in the planning file, dated August 2019, shows that local developer Bernard Hennessy was the owner of the site. In a handwritten letter, he said he had entered into an agreement to sell the property, and had given his full consent to the applicant and their agent acting on their behalf to apply for planning permission.

The convent dates from 1857. The chapel, designed by the renowned architectural firm, EW Pugin and GC Ashlin, and built by William Murphy of Bantry, was consecrated on April 30, 1868.

The order’s 144-year connection with Skibbereen ended in 2004, and Mercy Heights ceased as a school in 2016 when the town's three post-primary schools were amalgamated.

Pictured at the scene after the fire at the former Convent of Mercy building and where they all went to school are Skibbereen ladies and now also teachers Michelle O'Brien, Mary Lordan and Orla O'Sullivan. The girls all have fond memories of their time at school at the former convent. Picture Denis Boyle
Pictured at the scene after the fire at the former Convent of Mercy building and where they all went to school are Skibbereen ladies and now also teachers Michelle O'Brien, Mary Lordan and Orla O'Sullivan. The girls all have fond memories of their time at school at the former convent. Picture Denis Boyle

A planning application for the site was granted in 2007 for a two-screen cinema, 67 apartments and a multi-storey car park. A year later, permission was granted for amendments to that 2007 grant.

While work started a year later, they were abandoned shortly after and the site has remained derelict since.

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