The historic slipway discovered this month at The Strand, Athlone. Photo: Graham Hull.

Historic 'Famine-era' slipway discovered in Athlone

A well-preserved slipway that's believed to have been built around the time of the Great Famine, in the 1840s, has been discovered by archaeologists working in Athlone.

The stone-built slipway, and three stone-built retaining walls, were uncovered at The Strand by TVAS (Ireland) Ltd, a Clare-based archaeological firm carrying out work as part of the town's flood defence scheme.

It's thought that the slipway most likely dates to the Shannon navigation works of the 1840s, and that it initially served as an access ramp for works on the riverbed.

Archaeologist Graham Hull told the Westmeath Independent that the team working at the site believed a discovery of this nature was always possible.

"It wasn't a complete surprise. We knew there was potential for there to be archaeological remains under the road surface. The big surprise was how well-preserved it was," he said.

"It was in such good condition, almost as good as when it was built, although it has been slightly damaged by ESB cabling further up the slipway."

The slipway is 11.7m long and 2.46m (exactly 8 feet) wide. It's parallel to the Shannon, and slopes downward from north to south with a flat base opening to the river at the west.

The retaining walls have been truncated and the surviving depth of the slipway base is 1.75m below the modern ground surface.

An Ordnance Survey first edition map from 1837-8 does not show the slipway, but it is shown on an 1888 map, which was published in 1914.

An overhead view of the slipway, showing the new flood defence wall to the right and the well-preserved section on the left.

To allow for the construction of the flood defences, the damaged northern part of the slipway is to be sacrificed, while the well-preserved section will be retained in situ, but it will not be visible to the public as it will be covered over with a cantilever when the flood defence wall is constructed.

"The damaged part of the slipway will have to be reduced down - it's mostly destroyed anyway, so that piece will have to be sacrificed," explained Graham.

"The good-quality sloping stone going down to the river, and the two flanking walls, will all remain where they are.

"After we've archaeologically recorded it, we will put a geotextile membrane down on top of it, and then the OPW can put the concrete base of the (flood) wall on top of that."

Both the elements to be removed and those being preserved in situ will be fully archaeologically recorded -- drawn, photographed and described.

The excavation is being licensed by the National Monuments Service and will be undertaken in the next few weeks by a small team directed by Graham Hull.

It is proposed to retain the good quality cut-stone for possible incorporation into the flood defences.