Athlone (Baile Átha Luain) (pop.21,000) straddles the River Shannon just south of Lough Ree and close to the geographical centre of Ireland. Long an important garrison town, it nowadays likes to be regarded as “the commercial capital of the midlands”, and is also a major regional centre for a a range of state and semi-state organisations and services.
Athlone’s best feature, the River Shannon itself, is still plied by working vessels and pleasure craft, from barges to sailing dinghies; river cruisers can be hired at a centrally located 87-berth marina. The river last flooded seriously in November 2009. (above image wikipedia)Athough the river forms the historic border between County Westmeath (Leinster) and County Roscommon (Connacht), the Local Government Act 1898 designated the entire municipality as belonging to the former, including areas on the west bank that had formerly pertained to the latter.
Remembering the excitement surrounding the mid-1970s installation of Athlone’s first set of traffic lights, it is astonishing to find how much the then sleepy riverside town has changed, with ultra-modern shopping facilities and startling new four-star hotels providing striking examples of modern architecture.
The last quarter of the C20th saw several major factories (notably pharmaceutical) open in and around Athlone, with new housing estates being erected mainly outside the official town boundaries: e.g. Monksland, a suburb on the west side of the town, is the most populous area of County Roscommon.
The Athlone Institute of Technology has almost 6000 students pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at two campuses, one located centrally and the other on the outskirts of the town.
Although Athlone has been unkindly called “the town that gastronomy forgot“, there are several reasonable eateries and quite a few very good pubs, some of which host live music sessions.
This has been an important crossing point of the River Shannon from time immemorial. More archaeological finds have been found in the river bed at Athlone than in any Irish town of comparable size.
The earliest recorded name for this location is An Sean Áth Mor (“the great old ford). By the C10th AD the crossing was known as Áth Luain (“the ford of Lun / Luan” – an obscure chieftain /”the ford of the loins” – due to an incident recorded in the Táin Bo Cuailnge).
A monastery is thought to have existed on a site long known as the Abbey Graveyard, perhaps originally an island, where several Early Christian graveslabs have been discovered. One probably commemorates Aillill Ua Dunchado, a king of Connacht who died in 764 AD; another, known as the Evangelist Slab, has been described as one of the most exciting pieces of stone carving of its era ever found in Ireland.
It is recorded that Brian Bóru led his army from Kincora through here in 1001, his fleet sailing up the river via Lough Derg to attend a gathering.
The first of six successive wicker / wooden bridges was erected in 1120 by the king of Connacht, Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair, who built a castle on the west bank to defend in 1129. These structures were destroyed and rebuilt several times over the next forty years of wars between the kingdoms of Connacht and Meath.
The Anglo-Normans constructed a motte-and-bailey fortification overlooking the ford. In 1210, in recognition of its strategic importance, Athlone was designated as the joint seat, with Dublin, of Crown government in Ireland, and the construction of a new stone Castle and bridge was begun by Justiciar John Gray. The anglicised form Athlone was first recorded in a document of 1214.
The Priory of SS Peter and Paul / de Innocentia, the only Cluniac foundation in Ireland, gave its name to Abbey Lane. According to tradition it was founded c.1150 by Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair as part of a C12th ecclesiastical reform movement. At its zenith comprised a single nave and transept church with a tower, cloister and conventional buildings. A Franciscan monastery was established nearby c.1230.
The earliest town wall was built in 1251. The toponyms Northgate Street and Dublingate Street identify the main points of access to the medieval town.
The Old Bridge of Athlone, famous in history, lore and song, was built in 1566, in the ninth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The 360ft x 14ft bridge had nine arches, with pillars built on stones thrown into the river and held in position by wooden piles. .
The Sieges of Athlone
Athlone occupied a vital position during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, as the location of the main bridge over the River Shannon between Leinster and Connacht.
The 1641 Rebellion saw Athlone Castle besieged by insurgents for 22 weeks, until it was relieved by troops sent by the Marquess of Ormonde. Reinforced, the Lord President of Connaught, Roger Jones, 1st Viscount Ranelagh, won a minor victory over the rebels at Ballintobber, but in the meantime the Kilkenny Confederacy officer Sir James Dillon occupied the strategic town of Ballykerran, thus reducing Athlone’s garrison and “English” inhabitants to near starvation. Lord and Lady Ranelagh obtained safe conduct to Dublin, and the latter’s vociferous campaign resulted in a relief convoy under Sir Richard Greville being sent to escort the famished soldiers and considerably reduced populace to the capital, defeating troops led by General Thomas Preston en route at the Battle of Rochconnell / Rathconnell.
The town was held by Kilkenny Confederation troops under Sir James’ nephew,Viscount Dillon, until 1650, when the Connaght army led by Ulick Burke, Earl of Clanricarde arrived to reinforce it but was diverted eastward to a minor victory at the Battle of Tecroghan and ultimate defeat by Col. Daniel Axtell‘s Parliamentarian troops at the Battle of Meelick Island. Athlone was taken later in the year by Charles Coote, who attacked from the west, having crossed into Connacht at Sligo. His victory inflicted severe damage, from which the town had not fully recovered when the eastern part was destroyed by fire c.1670.
Athlone was again of key strategic importance during the Williamite War (effectively part of the pan-European War of the Grand Alliance / Spanish Succession),, being one of the strongholds defending the river-crossings into the Jacobite-controlled Province of Connacht following their rout at the Battle of the Boyne on 1st July 1690.
In that year, the Williamite General Douglas at the head of between 7,500 and 10,000 men failed to take the town from defenders under the Jacobite Governor of Athlone, a veteran of the Confederate War called Colonel Richard Grace who was at that time over seventy years of age. The siege was lifted after a week.
The following year saw a further assault by a full Williamite army of almost 25,000 men under the command of General Godard / Godert de Ginkel, Baron van Reede, from the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. The Jacobite forces were under the command of a French general, the Marquis de St. Ruth.The Williamites used heavy artillery to breach the old wall, and soon captured the Leinster side of the town.
In a desperate attempt to keep the enemy at bay, the Jacobites broke down several arches of the bridge, which the Williamites quickly attempted to repair. A brave sergeant of dragoons called Custume led his men onto the bridge and they succeeded in dislodging the Williamite repair work before meeting their death under enemy fire (a deed celebrated in Aubrey de Vere‘s poem the Ballad of Athlone)
Ironically, it was the almost chance re-discovery of the ford that gave Athlone its name that allowed the besiegers to launch a surprise attack; the Williamites took the castle by storm, dislodging the Jacobites and eventually overrunning the entire town, resulting in wholesale carnage and forcing the defenders further west toward the River Suck at such speed that eyewitnesses said they “flung their cannons into the morass” as they fled.
The most recently discovered account of the Siege of Athlone, found in 2004 in an archive in the Netherlands, was written on 5 July 1691 by General Ginkel in letters to his family. He reported half of the town’s defenders had retreated westward towards the rest of their army, leaving almost 2000 dead within the walls and over a hundred taken prisoner, among whom were dozens of officers.
(For his services Ginkel was created Earl of Athlone, a title that survived 9 generations until 1844, and was subsequently revived twice).
The cutting of the Athlone Canal west of the town in 1757 marked the first attempts to make the River Shannon fully navigable above Athlone.
Following the failed French landing at Bantry Bay in 1796, a total of eight Batteries were constructed on the western edge of Athlone. The only remnant visible today is a small portion of the No.1 battery in an area called the Batteries (formerly Spa Park, home of the Athlone Garrison Golf Club from 1892 to 1920).
The Shannon Navigation works of the 1840s finally made Athlone a viable river port.
It was proposed in the Republican Éire Nua programme to make Athlone the capital city of a federal United Ireland.
(Athlone is also the name of a suburb of Cape Town, and Athlone Park is a suburb of Durban; both are called after the 1st Earl of Athlone (3rd Creation 1917), King George V‘s brother-in-law, Sir Alexander Cambridge (who had renounced his German title of Prince of Teck), who served as Governor General of South Africa from 1924 to 1930, Governor Geneeral of Canada from 1940 to 1946, and died in 1957. His wife, Queen Victoria’s longest surviving grandchild, Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, died in 1981).
Athlone lies between Mount Temple and on ByRoute 14, close to Hodson Bay and on Lough Ree, and within easy distance of Ballinahown and Clonmacnoise on Byroute 13.
The Connacht Side
Athlone Castle, rebuilt many times, retains a 12-sided donjon / keep of Anglo -Norman origin, but for the most part dates from the late C18th. Currently closed for restoration work, it is due to reopen in 2011, when a new and improved Visitors’ Centre & Museum will be unveiled.
(The RMMV Athlone Castle was also the name of a famous British ocean liner, constructed in Belfast by Harland & Wolff in 1938, used as a troop ship during WWII, and on the Southampton – Cape Town mail run until 1965).
Athlone Barracks is a particularly interesting complex, with a number of buildings dating to the immediate aftermath of the Williamite War. In continuous occupation since 1697, it is the oldest such facility in the British Isles (and probably in Europe). It was called Victoria Barracks when handed over by the British Army to the Irish Free State General Sean MacEoin in 1922, and is now called Custume Barracks after the doomed hero of the 1691 Siege of Athlone (who also has a street named in his honour). It is now the headquarters of the Western Command of the Irish Army.
Sean’s Bar has been listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest pub in Europe, to which dubious claim should be added the Irish record for the largest marquee erected to evade legislation prohibiting smoking “indoors”. 🙂
Athlone’s skyline is dotted with an unusual number of church spires, partly due to the town’s division by the River Shannon into two Roman Catholic parishes – St Peter’s, to the west, in the diocese of Elphin, and St Mary’s to the east, in the dioceses of Ardagh and Clonmacnois. The Church of Ireland also built churches on both sides of the river, although only one remains in Anglican use since the congregations were amalgamated in the 1940s. The C19th saw the growth of several alternative denominations, each with its own place of worship, and recent years have seen some exotic new religious arrivals.
SS Peter and Pauls church (RC), on The Square at the western end of the Shannon Bridge, is such an imposing edifice that it is sometimes mistaken for a cathedral. It was designed by Ralph Byrne and completed in 1937 under the stewardship of Dean John Crowe at a cost of over £120,000. Among the many fine features of the church are six stained-glass windows from the Harry Clarke studios. The window in the baptistry is by Early of Dublin and the one in the priest’s sacristy is by Sarah Purser, founder of An Tur Gloine.
St Peter’s church, rechristened the Dean Crowe Memorial Theatre & Arts Centre in 2002, was initially erected c.1795, when it would have been no more than a small chapel, then enlarged in 1809. This building served as the RC parish church until the 1937 completion of SS Peter & Paul’s church in the Square. Converted for use as a parochial hall, it became a venue for dances plays, concerts and recitals. The All-Ireland Amateur Drama Festival has been held here each year since 1959.
St. Peter’s church, a rather plain Gothic hall on Connaught Gardens in Ganly Place (off Pearse Street), was a Church of Ireland parish church from 1840 to 1944. Later it served as a parochial hall before being acquired by the Roman Catholic Society of Pius X and converted into the Corpus Cristi Priory, where “traditionalist” pre-Vatican II rites are observed and Tridentine masses are held.
Athlone’s former Presbyterian church on the riverside is now a popular Italian restaurant.
The former Midland Great Western Railway Station, designed by JS Mulvany, was in use from 1850 until 1985.
The Battery Bridge, designed by Thomas Omer, the engineer responsible for the Athlone Canal, is a good vantage point from which to survey the site of the batteries and canal.
The River Bridges
The Shannon Bridge, replacing the Elizabethan bridge as part of the extensive Shannon Navigation works, was opened to the public in November 1844. A swivel section incorporated to permit boats with high superstructures to pass was replaced in the early 1960s by a fixed span. This low and elegant bridge was Athlone’s only road crossing of the River Shannon until the 1991 completion of the Shannon Way bridge as part of the Athlone Relief Road .
The Railway Bridge, erected in 1850, was an amazing feat of engineering for its time. The iron-work was shipped to Limerick and from there was brought to Athlone by barge. The entire job took less than 18 months to complete. The bridge is over 540ft long and had an opening central span of 120ft. TP O’Connor claimed that of all the prospects he had seen in Europe, the sight dearest to him was “the graceful railway bridge over the Shannon at Athlone”.
The Leinster Side
Athlone Railway Station was built to the design of George Wilkinson as the Great Southern and Western Railway Station, nine years after the MGWRwy station across the river. The two railway stations operated independently until the companies were merged in the mid-1920s, whereupon the latter enjoyed a monopoly of all passenger traffic until rendered redundant in 1985 by the renovation of the former “Southern” (GS&W) station on the Leinster side. Intercity trains serve Dublin, Galway and Ballina / Westport.
The Old Walls, supposedly a section of Athlone’s medieval defences, probably dates from the early C17th.
Court Devenish, a Jacobean mansion, was built c.1620 as the residence of a Dublin merchant called George Devenish; the ruin stands in the grounds of Court Devenish House, an elegant Georgian house erected in 1791.
St Mary’s church (CoI), centrally located on the site of the original medieval parish church on Church St, was constructed in 1827 to replace an earlier structure built by Oliver St John Grandison in 1622, of which only the free-standing bell-tower survives. The main bell, dated 1683, was sounded by General Ginkel as a signal for the final assault during the 1691 Siege of Athlone. The smaller bell came from the Tholsel / Market House, demolished in the 1830s. Other interesting relics include a number of fine memorial tablets and the Mearing Stone, which stood in the middle of the Elizabethan bridge marking the boundary between Counties Westmeath and Roscommon.
The Athlone Workhouse (Northgate Street), one of over 100 Irish workhouses built to the common plan of Poor Law Commission architect George Wilkinson, was completed in 1841. It was designed to accommodate 800 paupers, but this number was greatly exceeded during the Great Famine and auxiliary Workhouses were used to accommodate the overflow. The buildings have since undergone a variety of uses.
The Wesleyan / Methodist church (Northgate Street), designed by Alfred G Jones and completed in 1865, is a handsome edifice with a rather austere exterior.
St Mary’s church (RC) in St Mary’s Square is a fine gothic edifice, designed by John Bourke and completed in 1862. Inside the porch, on the right, is a memorial tablet designed by John Hogan Jnr in honour of Fr Kieran Kilroe, the priest responsible for building the church.
The Bawn, a curious street with medieval associations, was the birthplace of the famous tenor, John McCormack (1884 – 1945), who was made a Papal Count; for many years an annual festival celebrated his heritage, and a rather good Chinese restaurant now occupies the site of his childhood home.
The church of St Anthony of Padua (RC), a fine riverside Hiberno-Romanesque Revival edifice based by Dublin architects Jones & Kelly on St Cronin’s in Roscrea, was built in 1932, and contains several attractive stained glass windows by Harry Clarke. It is attached to Athlone’s current Franciscan Friary, established in 1869.
(Athlone also has two modern Roman Catholic churches, a Baptist church, a Nigerian Evangilican church and a Tibetan Buddhist meditation centre).
Burgess Park is a pleasant riverside area from which one can appreciate the fine sweep of the Weir, built as part of the Shannon Navigation works of the 1840s. (Photo – RETRO STU)
Another popular tourist activity is to go on boat tours of the local waterways, notably the Viking Cruise of the Shannon.
Athlone Literary Festival is an annual event which began in 1999 as a week-end celebration of the life and works of John Broderick (1924–1989)and which now features a great variety of speakers and debaters.
The Athlone Agri-Show is held in late June every year in the grounds of Moydrum Castle at Mount Temple.
Athlone lies between Mount Temple and on ByRoute 14, close to Hodson Bay and on Lough Ree, and within easy distance of Ballinahown and Clonmacnoise on Byroute 13.
Glendeer Open Farm is a family-run facility at Drum, near Monksland, which is particularly popular wih children.