Athlone (Baile Átha Luain) (pop.18,000) 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. (Photo by Victorangel)
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, this writer was astonished 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.
Athlone’s splendid new Civic Centre & Library (a spectacular future Arts Centre is still at the planning stage).
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 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.