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.
The once grey and grubby old docks area has become the picturesque (almost twee) Left Bank. (Photo by ingawh) However, the once busting Connaught St is in serious need of restoration.
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.