A sketch of the bridge and mills at Athlone.

Streetwise: Athlone town

This series of articles for the Westmeath Independent is run in conjunction with the Street Wise Athlone series on Athlone Community Radio which is broadcast on Wednesdays during Athlone Today at 2.30pm and repeated on Thursday mornings at 10am on The Brekkie Show

Athlone Miscellany by Gearoid O'Brien

I have been contributing this regular column to The Westmeath Independent now for over 30 years. In 2018 I was approached by Amanda Gunning, a young producer with Athlone Community Radio to know would I help to script a series of texts about Athlone streets, housing estates and areas around Athlone for a proposed radio series called Street Wise. The ten-minute radio broadcasts will include my own short narrated script backed up by interviews with local people. The first episode, on Athlone Town, sets the scene for the series. These articles which complement the series are written specially for The Westmeath Independent.

Two big questions emerge when we think about the origins of Athlone, one is why does Athlone exist as a town and the other is when did Athlone actually become a town. The first question is easily answered, the second is not as straightforward. Athlone grew up at an important crossing point of the middle-Shannon. In early times two of the things which greatly facilitated travel were eskers and rivers. Eskers, like our rivers are geological features – they are long ridges composed usually of sand and gravel which were deposited by meltwater from a retreating glacier after the last Ice Age. The eskers provided solid ground in contrast to the large tracts of bog that dominated the Irish midlands. Athlone is largely built on eskers – think of Esker Ridge in Retreat, think of the sinuous shape of Athlone winding its way from Bonavalley to Baylough, think of the sand-hills at the Batteries. In Church Street for example you are at a great height compared to nearby areas – you have to go downhill to Garden Vale or Northgate Street and think of the several steep hills which take you down to the river – in all cases you are, apparently, coming down from the top of the esker on which Athlone grew up.

Here in Athlone the esker and the river meet. Where the Esker intersects the Shannon, the gravel ridge caused the river to shallow forming a natural ford which is what made it so attractive as a crossing point on the river. Before ever there was a bridge at Athlone the fording point on the river was known as An Sean Ath Mor (or the Great ford of Antiquity).

The Evidence for Early Habitation at Athlone

We know that the ford was important in prehistoric times because of the many interesting finds from the river bed, and stray finds made during excavations for development purposes in the town. A number of stone axe-heads, an adze and other fragments suggests activity here in Neolithic times. Over fifty Bronze Age weapons including axe-heads, a shield and swords and a number of dress ornaments have come to light, several of them found in the last fifty years by members of both Athlone Sub-Aqua Club and the Army Sub-Aqua divers. Iron Age finds are much less numerous from Athlone probably because they deteriorated more quickly in the water.

The earliest indicator of settlement in the vicinity of Athlone is the Mihanboy dolmen, or portal tomb, in the parish of Drum west of the town. The earliest evidence in town was the discovery of five Early Christian graveslabs in the old Abbey Graveyard. These grave-slabs have been dated from the mid-eight to tenth centuries. While there is documentary evidence of Early Christian monastic sites at Clonowen and Drum there is no such evidence from Athlone. However, cartographic evidence of a large ring enclosure at the Abbey Graveyard, together with the find of Early Christian grave-slabs gives great support to the theory that there was an unrecorded Early-Christian monastery on the site of the present Abbey graveyard.

A major find of Viking gold from Lough Ree in the early 19th century is evidence of the well-documented Viking activity in this area in both

the ninth and tenth centuries. We know that the Vikings had a base on Lough Ree, and perhaps even a short-lived boat-house at Ballykeeran, and that they raided the monasteries on Lough Ree and also raided Clonmacnoise, south of Athlone.

The Town Develops

According to the annals a causeway was built here in 1000 AD, a causeway is defined as a ‘raised roadway crossing low-lying marshy ground or shallow water’, we know that the Shannon was shallow at the ford but it was possibly difficult to cross because of a series of rapids. This causeway (in some versions referred to as a bridge) was built as a result of an alliance between the kings of Meath and Connacht. The historian Donncha O Corráin suggests that the causeway may have served a dual purpose and may have been used as a barrier to impede the progress of Brian Boru, who had a fleet on the Shannon at that time. The alliance between the kings of Meath and Connacht was short-lived and very soon the two factions were at loggerheads.

What is generally described as being the first bridge across the Shannon at Athlone was built in 1120 by King Turlough O Conor of Connaught. The king built the bridge which could be easily defended to protect his territory from incursions by the men of Meath. We know very little about the construction of this bridge but must assume that it was not very substantial, it was probably a combination of timber and wickerwork. The annals record several instances in which this bridge was destroyed and repaired or reconstructed by the O Conors – for the next eighty years these temporary bridges were built and rebuilt. When he was developing the bridge Turlough O Conor also built a castle at Athlone, which was one of the very few castles recorded in Ireland before the arrival of the Normans. We do not know anything about the nature of this castle but there are references to the house of Rory O Conor in Athlone in 1168 in the annals.

It seems that with the O Conor kings establishing a presence in Athlone that this saw a small early settlement at Athlone growing in stature. Turlough O Conor is usually credited with establishing the only Cluniac priory in Ireland on the west bank of the Shannon on the site of the present St Peter’s Girls NS. Such a priory would not have been established here if there was not a local population to support it. However, the real catalyst for growth was the coming of the Normans. By 1200 the Normans had reached the Shannon and realised the strategic importance of the crossing point at Athlone. Athlone began to develop as a nucleus of settlement once the Anglo-Normans started to build their stone castle and bridge in 1210.

We know that the modern town grew up around the castle. The network of little streets radiating to the west of the castle reflect the early medieval town development while the linear development from the bridge through Church Street is more typically Anglo-Norman in nature. By the mid-13th century, the town was developing on both sides of the river.

A murage grant was made in 1251 to build a town wall, the Castle needed the services of trade and commerce, the Cluniacs were established on the west bank of the Shannon and the Franciscans on the east. In the course of this series of articles ‘StreetWise’ I will be looking in greater detail at specific areas of the town and hopefully giving readers greater insights into the history of Athlone.

The next article in the series, which deals with Market Square, can be read HERE