History of Athlone

Athlone until 1900 – a brief history by Gearoid O’Brien

Athlone grew up on an important crossing point on the Shannon. The chain of eskers which runs through Ireland from east to west created a natural ford when it reached the Shannon at this point. Athlone takes its name from that ford: Athluain (the ford of Luan). This ford has been important since the Bronze Age, at lest, as evidenced by the volume of

Elizabethan Bridge, Athlone

The Elizabethan Bridge of Athlone (Aidan Heavey Public Library, Athlone)

Bronze Age finds from the river bed. The discovery of a number of Early Christian grave-slabs in Athlone suggests that Athlone was the site of an unrecorded Early Christian monastery.

King Turlough O Connor (Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair) of Connacht was responsible for the building of a succession of temporary bridges across the Shannon at Athlone to facilitate his forays into Meath; he also built the earliest recorded ‘castle’ here in 1129. The Normans reached the Shannon before 1200 and recognized the strategic importance of the ford. In 1210 Bishop John de Gray, of Norwich, King John’s Irish justiciar, constructed a new bridge and commenced the building of Athlone Castle on the western side of the river. This medieval bridge seems to have perished by the early years of the 14th century. The castle was built on land belonging to the Cluniac Priory of SS Peter & Paul, which had been founded in the 12th century. This priory had considerable wealth when it was dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII and its property was added to the estate of Athlone Castle.

The Franciscans established a friary in Athlone c1240. After the dissolution of the monasteries the friars returned to the locality to spearhead the counter-reformation. There is still a Franciscan presence in Athlone today. The earliest mention of town walls in Athlone is contained in a murage grant of 1251, but the surviving portions of the town-walls reflect rebuilding in the 17th century. After the decline of the Norman colony the town fell into decay and the control of the castle alternated between the O’Kellys of Hy-many and the Dillons of Kilkenny-West. The town began to recover once the government forces took control of the castle again in 1537. The building of the great nine-arched Elizabethan bridge of Athlone in 1566, was a prelude to the establishment of the presidency of Connacht in 1569. The headquarters of the presidency was located in Athlone Castle.

Athlone was granted a charter in 1599 and a second one in 1606. Under the terms of the charter a Corporation was established to govern the town and to oversee the return the town’s M.P.s to parliament. Over the years this self perpetuating Corporation was controlled by two hugely influential families: the Handcocks (who were Tories) and the St Georges (who were Whigs). By the 1830s Athlone was deemed a ‘rotten borough’ and the Corporation was abolished and replaced by Town Commissioners and by 1899 by Athlone Urban District Council (now Athlone Town Council). Athlone Town Council is due to be abolished in 2014 heralding a new era in local government.

During the Williamite and Jacobite Wars the town was besieged twice. In 1690 Athlone was attacked by 10,000 Williamite troops but the Jacobites under Col Richard Grace repelled the attack. The following year 25,000 Williamite troops, under the command of General de Ginkle, besieged the town. The siege lasted ten days and despite the bravery of Sgt Custume and his men, who staunchly defended the bridge, the Williamites managed to find the ford that gave Athlone its name. The Castle was the last post to surrender and King William’s army then proceeded to Aughrim and on to Limerick where the Treaty was signed.

The three keys to the growth of Athlone in the nineteenth century were the founding of Athlone Woollen Mills, the Shannon Navigation works of the 1840s, and the arrival of the railway in 1850. Athlone today still enjoys its central location making it a great base for Shannon holidays and an ideal place for meetings, seminars and conferences. It is very well served by public transport and the road infrastructure is excellent. To learn more about the history of Athlone a visit to Athlone Castle is highly recommended.