History of Athlone

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Athlone (Irish: Baile Átha Luain, meaning "town of Luan's ford") is a town on the River Shannon near the southern shore of Lough Ree in Ireland. It is in Westmeath on the border of counties Westmeath (province of Leinster) and Roscommon (province of Connacht).

Athlone Castle[edit]

At the heart of Athlone in Ireland, both geographically and historically, is Athlone Castle. The ford of Athlone was strategically important, as south of Athlone the River Shannon is impassable until Clonmacnoise (where the Esker Riada meets the River Shannon), and north is Lough Ree. In 1001 Brian Bóru led his army from Kincora into the town, his fleet sailing up the river via Lough Derg to attend the gathering.

A bridge was built across the river in the 12th century, approximately 100 metres south of the current bridge. To protect this a fort was constructed on the west bank in the town by Turloch Mor O Conor. On a number of occasions both the fort and bridge were subject to attacks, and towards the end of the 12th century the Anglo-Normans constructed a motte-and-bailey fortification here. This was superseded by a stone structure built in 1210 by Justiciar John de Gray. The 12-sided donjon dates from this time. The rest of the castle was largely destroyed during the Siege of Athlone and subsequently rebuilt and enlarged.

The current battlements and cannon emplacements were installed to prevent a French fleet from sailing up the River Shannon and establishing a bridgehead in Lough Ree (likewise south of Athlone at Shannonbridge, near Clonmacnoise). The castle was later damaged by a lightning strike on the powder store. The castle was also home to a small garrison, and provided housing for several families until the 1980s. These quarters now house part of the castle museum.The two mortars situated in front of the donjon are believed to date to the Williamite wars, and were previously located outside the main entrance of Custume Barracks.

The idea, mooted during the Elizabethan wars, of relocating the Lord Deputy of Ireland here from Dublin, illustrating the strategic importance of the town.

During the wars that wracked Ireland in the seventeenth century, Athlone held a vital position, holding the main bridge over the River Shannon into Connacht. In the Irish Confederate Wars 1641–1653, the town was held by Irish Confederate troops until it was taken late in 1650 by Charles Coote, who attacked the town from the west, having crossed into Connacht at Sligo.

Forty years later, during the Williamite war in Ireland, the town was again of central strategic importance, being one of the Jacobite strongholds on the defending their position after they had retreated west after the battle of the Boyne. At the first battle of Athlone in 1690 the Jacobite forces of Colonel Richard Grace repelled an attack by 10,000 men led by Commander Douglas. The following year the Siege of Athlone saw a further assault in which the troops of King William III eventually prevailed against the outnumbered defenders.

The current bridge was built in the 19th century to replace the old bridge which was becoming dangerous to the increasing volume of traffic. Originally the bridge had a moveable section which was decommissioned in the mid 20th century.

Custume Barracks[edit]

Irish soldiers marching across the bridge in Athlone for the handover of Custume Barracks, 1922.

Custume Barracks occupies a large area of the west bank of the River Shannon. The Barracks is named after a Sergeant Custume who, during the 1691 Siege of Athlone, led a dozen volunteers (of whom 2 survived) out under the Dutch guns to tear down a wooden bridge. The barracks was the headquarters of the Western Command of the Irish Defence Forces until a reorganisation in 2013. It remains the headquarters of several infantry, artillery and engineering regiments of the defence forces. The original entrance to the barracks was where the current Garda station is today.

On the east side of town, off North Gate Street, is an intact example of a Famine-era workhouse. The building, renamed St Mary's Hall, now hosts several youth groups and includes a large meeting room. Within sight of the workhouse building is a historic abbey.

Remains of the abbey at Athlone.

During the mid-19th century, the Board of Works built a weir wall south of Athlone to improve the navigation of the river.

Other fortifications include the ruins of a battery just to the north of Athlone (in an area now a nature reserve) and a large artificial hill called "The Batteries" upon which council housing has been built. The Connaught side was defended by a fosse which no longer exists.

The noted tenor John McCormack was born in here in 1884 at the Bawn.

Annalistic references[edit]

From the Annals of Inisfallen

  • AI998.2 Brian, son of Cennétig, [went] to Áth Luain, took the hostages of Connachta in one week, and handed them over to Mael Sechnaill.
  • AI1001.5 A great obstruction against the men of Mumu [was placed] on the Sinann at Áth Luain by Mael Sechnaill, and by the king of Connachta and by all Leth Cuinn.
  • AI1002.2 A hosting of the men of Mumu into Connachta, and they took the hostages of Connachta at Áth Luain, and the hostages of Mael Sechnaill.

See also[edit]