The late Mr John Leonard pictured outside Blanch Harney’s Shop in Connaught Street in 1969. On the left is Keogh’s sweet shop and on the right is Pakie Egan’s chip-shop,

Street Wise Athlone – Connaught Street

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

Over the past 32 years contributing regular articles to this newspaper, I have probably written more about Connaught Street than about any other street in Athlone. So, what is so special about Connaught Street? It was once the beating heart of the Connaught side of Athlone. Unlike Church Street where the merchant classes who moved into Athlone set up shop, Connaught Street was very much an Irish street closely connected with the farming families of south Roscommon. Many of the families who formerly brought their produce to market in Athlone eventually set up in business in this street. It might surprise readers to know that the Connaught side had its own ‘Irishtown’ where native Irish families plied their trade.

Connaught Street is not an old street relative to other streets on the Connaught side of town. Athlone is an Anglo-Norman town which grew up around the Castle and the crossing point of the river. Initially it was a small tight nucleus of settlement centred around the Castle; it tended to expand eastwards but by medieval times there was also a thriving market town west of the Shannon. The medieval fortifications, whether they were actual walls or ditches (or indeed a combination of both) extended on the Connaught side from the river through Bastion Street and Queen Street, through the land on which the Barracks now stands to the river at the present Promenade. All else was country - green fields with perhaps a scattering of cabins where Connaught Street is now.

The earliest recorded mention of the name ‘Connaught Street’ is on a deed of 1715 indicating that by that time the street was already in existence. The only named laneway off the street at that time was ‘Fair Green Lane’ which was later known as Cemetery Lane or Pipe Lane, while there were clear indications of four un-named laneways off the south side of the street.

Connaught St by-passed

Until the stage-coach came along there would have been a very small amount of traffic to the west, mostly either by foot or on horse-back. Then in 1736 Mark Begg, proprietor of The Three Blackamoor Heads, in Main Street started the first stage coach service from Athlone to Dublin. It was some time before a service was extended to the west. When it did this area was opened up and developed. Inns sprung up; stalls and shops moved out from the crowded area around the Castle and private residences were built. The last stage-coach, a Bianconi stage, ran in 1850. Business had fallen off with the construction of the railway but by then Connaught Street had become an important street in its own right. In the year that the stage-coach went out of service the Midland Great Western Railway Company announced their intention to build two feeder roads to the new Railway Station, one on either side of the town. The road on the Leinster side would run from Capt. Caulfield’s (The Moorings on the Ballymahon Road) westwards and parallel to the river. While the road on the Connaught side would run from a place called ‘the new road’ (presumably because it had been made at the time of the recent Shannon Navigation works) to the Ranelagh. When it was decided to proceed with the one on the Connaught side it was much to the consternation of the people in Connaught Street. Protest meetings were held and objections lodged with the Railway company on the grounds that the proposed road was bound to prove injurious to the trade and commerce of their side of the town and that it would have the effect of depreciating property in the area. The road, initially called the Eglington Road after the Lord Lieutenant who was to open it, and later known as The Accommodation Road or Grace Road (and currently known as Elliott Road) was built and Connaught Street survived.

Loss to Roscommon

The next crisis in the history of the street came when, under the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898, an order was made to include in County Westmeath ‘so much of the existing judicial county of Roscommon as comprises portion of the town of Athlone situated therein’. This amalgamation or annexation was strongly resisted. An appeal court heard objections to the order and a demand was made for its reversal. However, the bringing together of the two sides of the town into a united entity henceforth to be administered by Westmeath County Council and Athlone Urban District Council went ahead.

At the time of the controversy in 1899 a local bard expressed the feelings of the people in verses entitled ‘Connaught Man Still’ from which the following few lines are a mere sample:

‘I’m told it is different air we now breathe, that there’s nothin’ the same as before

For now, we reside in the County Westmeath, and are natives of Connaught no more

But while Shannon flows down from its source to the sea, to divide the two sides of Athlone

Their blue books and red-tape will never change me I’m Connaught and Connaught alone.’

The earliest list of occupiers of houses in Athlone, or at least in certain parts of Athlone, is the index to the Ranelagh Estate map of 1784. Part only of Connaught Street was covered, part of the south side near the canal - sixteen houses in all - ten of them referred to as ‘the burned houses’, only one of which, a slated house was in good condition; also, a good house occupied by Rev Edward Gaven, the offices and yard of Thomas Hovendon (the brewer) a plot going down to the canal and the house of one Thomas Geraghty. Griffith’s Valuation of 1855 is another useful source. This lists the occupiers of properties, descriptions of holdings and rateable valuations.

John Broderick

John Broderick, who was born in 1924, was the great chronicler of Connaught Street. He was the son of John Broderick who ran the family bakery business which had been established by his grandfather. Broderick’s first book, The Pilgrimage, was published in 1961. It heralded the arrival of a novelist who was unafraid to tackle taboo subjects. The following year marked the publication of The Fugitives, which was followed by Don Juaneen in 1963 and The Waking of Willie Ryan in 1965. While the midland town, on the river, that is the setting for The Fugitives is not identified suffice it to say that the market-place in the town was dominated by an old castle from the days of King John! Don Juaneen has a Dublin setting but for The Waking of Willie Ryan Broderick once again returned to the Great Central plain of Ireland and a small Irish town (un-named) which was prone to flooding when ‘the mighty Shannon overflowed its banks {in Winter] for a mile on either side’. There were recognisable local characters in this book but when he tackled his final trilogy, of which only two were written, that he identified Athlone as ‘Bridgeford’ and portrayed a very familiar Athlone to his many readers. He is remembered by the John Broderick Writer-in-Residence each year, and by a street named in his honour in Irishtown.

Next: The laneways off Connaught St

You can read previous articles in this series here