Fernhill Garden Centre, a landmark building in Cornamagh.

Street Wise Athlone – Cornamagh

This series of articles for the Westmeath Independent was run in conjunction with the Street Wise Athlone series on Athlone Community Radio


The townland of Cornamagh contains 261 acres, 1 rood and 19 perches. According to the Ordnance Survey Field Name Book for the Parish of St Mary’s, Cornamagh comes from the Irish ‘Corr na mBeach’ or the round hill of the bees. Despite being a relatively small townland, it is bounded by nine other townlands: Cappankelly, Garrynefela, Cornamaddy, Lissywollen, Curragh, Cloghanboy (Cooke), Clonbrusk, Coosan and Tullin.

When the Field Name Book was being compiled in 1837-38 O’Donovan said that the townland was the “property of Lord Castlemaine, held by a deed for ever”. Describing the terrain, he said “about 40 acres …is bog and rough ground, the remainder is all under cultivation except 2 acres of wood. The inhabitants are very poor”.

The Field Name Boo also mentions a feature, referred to as ‘Cornamagh Old Tree’ which was an ancient tree situated in the centre of the townland. It also mentions Cornamagh Bog lough, a small lough, situated in the townlands of Coosan and Cornamagh, which “is almost dry in summer”.

If John O’Donovan was correct and Lord Castlemaine owned the townland in 1837-38, this had clearly changed by 1854 when Griffith’s Valuation was published.

By 1854 Lord Castlemain just owned 15 acres in Cornamagh which he had leased to William Potts. William Potts was by 1854 the principal landlord for Cornamagh, owning all but 50 acres of the total townland. The two other landlowners (as opposed to tenants) were James Malin [or Melinn] and Michael; Costelloe who owned 20 acres and 12 acres respectively.

It is amazing to think that in 1854 there were just ten houses in the Cornamagh. These were occupied by:

Mary Coghlan who had a small house on a plot which she leased from James Malin; Hannah Costelloe who had a house, offices and garden on a one-acre plot; Mary Costelloe who had a house, offices and garden on a small plot; Michael Costelloe who had a house, offices and land and farmed on 14 acres; Patrick Costelloe who had a house and garden; John Craig had a house, offices and garden on a small plot; Thomas Craig had a house, offices and land on 12 acres; Patrick Curly had a house offices and land on a 23-acre holding; Thomas Daly had a house, offices and land on 47-acres and James Malin {or Melinn] had a house and offices and farmed 20 acres. Some of these people may also have held land in adjoining townlands. In Griffith’s Valuations the term ‘offices’ usually just refers to sheds and outbuildings.

Apart from those with houses in Cornamagh James and Mary Sweeny farmed 73 acres in the townlands and Mary Costelloe, Michael Costelloe, Thomas Loughlin and John Macken had smaller holdings of land leased from William Potts.

William Potts

The Potts family was descended from William Potts, a native of Cheshire, who settled in Tinamuck in Kings County c1688. There were several branches of the family in the Midlands but the William Potts who was the head landlord for Cornamagh was William Potts (c1784-1862) of Springfield and Oldcourt on the Ballymahon Road. According to the Burgess Papers he inherited all the property of his uncle John in Athlone. The family owned the land at Springfield / Oldcourt since the 18th century at least, and he built the present house known as Oldcourt c1840. His son, also William Potts J.P. (c1820-1896) built Newcourt on the grounds of Oldcourt c1862, he was the last of the family to live there, he died in April 1896 aged 76.

Cornamagh Cemetery

Cornamagh Cemetery, located close to Fernhill Garden Centre was the main cemetery for the town of Athlone from 1871 until St. Kieran’s Cemetery in Coosan was opened in 1968. The opening of Cornamagh cemetery put an end to burials in the Abbey Graveyard and in both St. Peter’s and St. Mary’s Church of Ireland churchyards except for those families who sought (and were granted) an exemption to the Order in Council which was dated 8th April, 1871. These families included the Everard, Holton, Robinson and Swain families, and in the Abbey Graveyard the families of Patrick Lyster, Patrick Coyle and Thomas Carew Bracken.

The blessing of the cemetery was not an ecumenical matter. Both the Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath and the Catholic Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise blessed their own portions of the cemetery on different days in early May 1871. The first burial, that of a soldier of the 89th Regiment took place on May 9.

The original rates for burial plots in Cornamagh were: £2 for a 9 x 4 plot in perpetuity, or single burials (Class 1) 10/- and (Class 2) 5/-. The plots for military burials were 10/- also.

History Lesson in Stone

Over the years I have visited Cornamagh Cemetery for burials and also just to look at the various headstones. In many ways the various headstones tell us much about the social history of Athlone. There are several Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones erected to soldiers who died while serving in the military barracks or some who were injured in service and died at home. These stones give details of the soldier’s Regiment which can be very usual for researching further information on them.

Among the graves in Cornamagh are several literary figures including that of James Martin who founded The Westmeath Independent; Patrick Byrne (1906-1967) a native of Connaught Street who wrote ‘The Wildes of Merrion Square’ and ‘Lord Edward Fitzgerald’; Billy Engish (1922-1978) who wrote extensively on the history of Athlone and the Shannon; Hanna Greally (1924-1987) author of ‘Bird’s Nest Soup’ and ‘Flown the Nest’ and, of course John Broderick (1924-1989).

John Broderick is one of two Athlone born writers who has a street in the town named in his honour, the other is T.P. O’Connor. John Broderick was the author of a dozen published novels: The Pilgrimage (1961); The Fugitives (1962); Don Juaneen (1963); The Waking of Willie Ryan (1965); An Apology for Roses (1973); The Pride of Summer (1976); London Irish (1979); The Trial of Father Dillingham (1982); A Prayer for Fair Weather (1984); The Rose Tree (1985); The Flood (1987) and the posthumously published The Irish Magdalen which appeared in 1991.

He was also the subject of a biographical and critical study called ‘Something in the Head: the life and works of John Broderick’ by Madeline Kingston and a volume called ‘Stimulus of Sin’ containing a selection of his essays and book reviews again edited by Madeline Kingston both books were published by Lilliput Press who also re-issued some of his novels.

Sean Costello (1892-19016)

Sean Costello was a native of Cornamagh and was educated in the nearby Cornamaddy National School. In 1913 he moved to Dublin to work for James Melinn a friend of the family. He joined F Company, 1st Battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers and held the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. He was a pall-bearer at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in 1915 and would have heard the famous oration by Padraig Pearse. He was killed during the Easter Rising while carrying despatches to or from the garrison in Boland’s Mill and is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery. He was the only Volunteer from Westmeath to be killed in the Easter Rising. The centenary of his death was marked by the unveiling of a plaque at Athlone Civic Centre.

Next article: Ballymahon Road.

To see more articles in this series, see here.