Street Wise Athlone –The Batteries

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

Most people when they think about the Batteries, think about local authority housing schemes but the Batteries existed long before the houses appeared. In terms of the local authority housing the schemes which were built on the Batteries break down into what could be referred to as the ‘Old Batteries’ and the ‘New Batteries’.

The ‘Old Batteries’ refers to the housing which was put in place by the mid-20th century and the ‘New Batteries’ refers to the housing developments of the past fifty years. The early schemes include St Peter’s Terrace (1928); St Paul’s Terrace (1932); St Anne’s Terrace (1933); Mitchell’s Terrace. – the first phase of which was built in 1937 and the second phase in 1941 and last, but not least, Ave Maria Row which was built in 1951.

It is now fifty years since Athlone UDC developed the first phase of Battery Heights and this was followed by a second phase in 1977. Very soon it became obvious that these high-rise apartment blocks were totally unsuitable for family living and they were later reduced in height and modified. Cherryfield Avenue was developed in 1986 and a new scheme at Hallsbridge was developed in 2003.

The Area We Know as The Batteries

The area we know as The Batteries, is so called because some of the most impressive of the eight Napoleonic gun batteries in Athlone were located there, but this area was previously known as Spa Park. Topographically it included raised sand-hills or eskers, some low-lying boggy lands and a proliferation of springs which gave the name Spa Park to the area. In the eighteenth century those suffering from stomach complaints and other ailments were often advised to partake of natural spring water. The waters which were most favoured were those described as chalybeate springs. The earliest account of the chalybeate spring at Athlone which survives was penned by Dr John Rutty, a Dublin Quaker in his book “An Essay towards a natural, experimental and medicinal history of the mineral waters of Ireland…” which was first published in Dublin in 1757.

Dr Rutty divided the known chalybeate springs of Ireland into classes and the Athlone spring produced Class II water, that is to say water which would not travel well without loss of potency. He concluded “These waters therefore, to be taken in their original perfection and purity, should be drank at the fountain, however, if carefully bottled and corked, and carried cool, early in the morning, they may be transported to the distance of ten miles and more, and drank with little loss, so that they are chiefly of use at the fountain, and to the people in their respective neighbourhood”.

The Batteries

One of the greatest losses to the history of Athlone during my lifetime was the sacrificing of this great series of Napoleonic fortifications to provide sites for local authority housing. In summing up the situation the late Paul M. Kerrigan, architect and historian, writing in the Journal of the Old Athlone Society in 1974-75 stated:

“The vast housing scheme… has completed the destruction of the Gallows Hill batteries. With a more imaginative architectural approach to accommodate the housing surely most of what remained of the fortifications could have been retained, incorporated into landscaped areas, walkways and children’s playgrounds? Athlone possessed until that time something unique in Ireland, an extensive early 19th century inland fortification. With the exception of No 1 Battery,

all that now remains is the cast iron gun-pivot or ‘pintal iron’ (around which a traversing platform revolved) saved during the demolition work and preserved by the Old Athlone Society, and displayed in the castle courtyard”.

My Memories of the Batteries

In the summer of 1962, I went into 2nd Class in the Dean Kelly Memorial School and saw for the first time, the considerable remains of the Naploeonic fortifications works which still survived. For the next five years until the summer of 1967, I ‘sported and played’ on the Batteries exploring the ruins of what we variously called the ‘castle’, ‘Brennan’s castle’ or the ‘dungeons’ but I don’t ever remember hearing about the importance of these places. Some of the earthworks on the Batteries were known as ‘the shivers’ – Billy English claimed that this was a corruption of a military term: ‘chevaux de frise.’.

Number 1 Battery was a small self-contained gun-emplacement which accommodated three twelve-pounder guns on a promontory between the Shannon and the northern end of the Canal- it is, sadly, the only surviving battery in Athlone. No 2 Battery was on the west bank of the Canal near the junction with the Galway Road. The most extensive remains however were those of Batteries number 3 and 4 which we could see from our school. These were perched on the high ground overlooking the railway. As we went home from school in the evenings, unbeknownst to ourselves, we passed the sites of two further Batteries – No 5 was in the vicinity of the present Dun Ard while Battery No 6 was close to the Battery bridge. Battery No 7 was south of Connaught Street and seems to have been relatively short lived but the one with the shortest life was undoubtedly Battery No 8 which was east of the canal on a corner of the site occupied by the former St. Aloysius College.

How much more fascinating the ‘castle’ on the Batteries would have been to us as school-children had we known that it was the remains of two major field-works designed to keep Napoleon from crossing the Shannon had he approached from the west. According to a report of December 1805 these two earthworks (Batteries No 3 and No 4) form “a front of five twenty-four pounders and two eight-inch howitzers” which were mounted on traversing platforms. Each of them had their own guardhouses and magazines with the ‘chevaux de frise’ formations guarding the communication trenches which joined them to the other batteries.

In 1811 a lieutenant of Napoleon’s Irish Legion visited Ireland to find out the state of Irish fortifications. He concluded that this ‘fort’ which was formed by a series of inter-connecting field-works at Athlone was the only fortification of any consequence in Ireland. These Napoleonic fortifications have given us the modern place-names ‘The Batteries’ and “No 1” but they also gave us the name Magazine Road.

The period between 1793 and 1815 saw considerable growth in the Barrack complex as Athlone was the designated Headquarters of the Western District and also assumed a new importance as the centre for the defence of the Middle Shannon. The ordnance depot at Athlone was thus responsible for supplying the various fortifications along the river including Athlone, Meelick and Shannonbridge. One of the developments at that time was the building of a new Powder Magazine at the Western boundary of the Barracks, near the Canal and thus very close to the Batteries. This complex of low-sized single-storey buildings is situated just inside the back gate to Custume Barracks and gives its name to Magazine Road.

Next week: Baylough

See previous articles in this series here.