Street Wise Athlone – Monksland

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

Monksland is located in St. Peter’s Parish, west of Athlone. It is a large townland at just over 1274 acres and is located immediately outside the Athlone Municipal District and thus comes within the administrative jurisdiction of Roscommon County Council. Roscommon County Council has a published plan for the continued development of the Monksland/Bellanamullia (Athlone West) Local Area Plan 2016-2022 which is made available online.

Monksland is an area of dense residential development with many modern housing estates having been built in the past 20 years, these are located both north and south of the new Tuam road. Among the housing estates in Monksland are: Ashford; Beechlawn Drive; Cedarwood Drive; Cluainbroc; Cushla; Cushla Village; Cushla Lawns; Cushla Grove and Cushla Downs; Corrán Riada; Danesfort; Hillcrest; Hillside Close; Manor Valley; Millbrook Avenue; Millrace; Monksfield; Mount William Court; Oakdale; River Village, Ros Árd; Sli an Choiste; St. Coman’s Park, Stonequarter and Waterville.

The Monksland area also has large scale industrial development, including the extensive Alkermes Plant, as well as a range of light industry and warehousing and a Business / Enterprise Park. It is located at the junction of the M6 / N6 Motorway between Dublin and Galway and the N61 National Secondary Rouse between Athlone and Boyle. It is also traversed by the Dublin-Westport railway line and the Crannagh / cross River flows through it to join the Shannon at the Shannon callows south of Athlone. In political terms Monksland is situated within the District Electoral Division of Athlone West Rural.

The Placename Monksland

Monksland (in Irish Fearann na Manach) takes its name from its connection to the medieval priory of Saints Peter and Paul which was located on the land now occupied by St. Peter’s Girls N.S. in Athlone. Abbey Lane which runs from the junction with Grattan Row down to Goldsmith Terrace also takes its name from this abbey. This religious foundation had then distinction of being the only Cluniac monastery in Ireland. It was established at a time of great reform in the Irish church initiated by St. Malachy of Armagh.

According to tradition the priory of Saints Peter and Paul was founded by King Turlough O Conor, of Connacht about the year 1150. St. Malachy had influenced him to help spread the reform of the church to the west of Ireland. This led to the creation of the archbishopric of Tuam at the Synod of Kells in 1152. St Malachy, having met St Bernard of Clairvaux, promoted the foundation of Cistercian monasteries rather than the Canons Regular of St. Augustine which had flourished in earlier times.

The Cluniacs were a reformed Benedictine order founded in France which spread to England in the 12th century having it first foundation at Lewes. Fr Patrick Conlan who has written about the history of the Cluniacs in Athlone speculated that Turlough O Conor’s reason for inviting the Cluniacs to Athlone was to reform the old Irish monastery at Clonown.

The site of the castle in Athlone, built in 1210 in the reign of King John, was confiscated from the Cluniac monks. In 1214 King John ordered the Archbishop of Dublin, to compensate the monks for the loss of their land. The compensation was set at one tenth of the income of the castle. They initially were granted ‘four cantreds in the fee of Loughsewdy’, but these were subsequently taken back when the King wanted to restore the lands to Walter de Lacy. At some point the Cluniac monks were granted the lands we know as Monksland. This is perhaps not surprising when we realise that by the time of the Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII, in 15378 there were fifteen rectories (in South Roscommon) assigned to the Athlone priory and the Cluniacs were servicing the churches at Cam, Kiltoom and Drum.

In 1572 the former Cluniac church in Athlone was destroyed by fire in an attack by the sons of the Earl of Clanricard. The storekeeper, a man called John Crofton, listed the property which had belonged to the Cluniac priory which, at the time of the Reformation, was one of the richest monasteries in Connacht. It included “the demesne lands, a mill, lands in Cloonakilla, seven weirs on the Shannon with the tithes thereof, the tithes of the rectories of Drum, Kiltoom, Killenvay, and Kilmanagh, Tagheon alias Saint John the Baptist, Athleague, Teachfratrane, Teaghane, Dysert, Cam, Rahara, Assafraghe, Killesalan, Killaghamba, and Kilcrowlin. Co Roscommon.”

The lands and properties confiscated from the monks at the time of the Reformation became a very important part of the property of the President of Connacht who resided in the Castle in Athlone. When the Presidency of Connacht was suppressed in 1670 the property passed to Richard Jones, Earl of Ranelagh.

The Siege of Athlone, 1691

The Monsland/Bealnamullia area is linked to the famous Siege of Athlone in 1691. In 1690 the town was attached by a Williamite force estimated at 10,000 men but Athlone was staunchly defended by the Governor of Athlone, Col Richard Grace who refused to surrender. However, the Williamites returned in June 1691 under the command of a Dutch general, Godard van Reede, baron de Ginkel, with a full-strength Williamite army of some 25,000 men. In preparation for this second siege the French general the Marquis de St. Ruth had mustered 20,000 men at Ballinasloe. By June 20th two Jacobite regiments had been sent to reinforce the garrison at Athlone while the remaining eight regiments were camped on the high ground in Monksland in view, but out of range, of the Williamite army. St Ruth is said to have enjoyed a night of revelry in a house, later known as “St. Ruth’s Castle” nearby.

Once Athlone was captured the next theatre of war was at Aughim near Ballinasloe, where in what was one of the bloodiest battles in Irish history the brave Marquis de St Ruth was killed.

Horseracing in Monksland

Thanks to the research of Dr Harman Murtagh the history of horseracing in Georgian Athlone has been very well documented. One of the earliest recorded events took place in Monksland in August 1731 when a four-day racing festival was held. Two races, in several heats, were held each day on the flat. The distances varied from two to four miles and the spectators watched from the higher ground. It was a week of general merriment with boat trips and balls held in the evenings. On the Friday there was a ten-mile race for “running footmen” with a silver watch for the winner. In 1731 the watch was won by Loughlin Prassagh” a servant in the employment of Lord Netterville.

We know that racing was again held at Monksland in 1732 and that an added attraction that year was a £20 plate presented on behalf of the Corporation of Athlone by Councillor William Harwood. By 1733 the venue for racing locally was changed to the Leinster side of Athlone, but it seems that local races may have continued at Monksland as Faulkner’s Dublin Journal of 11 July 1776 reported that the races at Monksland were held with the usual “good ordinances and public breakfasts each day and balls by night”. There were races held here for the following two years – in 1777 we are told the £100 purse attracted a field of ten for the main event. However, racing in Monksland seems to have lapsed shortly after that.

Next article in the series: Summerhill

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