Introduction to Athlone Castle
Athlone grew up at a fording point on the River Shannon. The first recorded bridge was built in 1120 and within a decade King Turlough O’Conor built a wooden castle to protect it. The Anglo-Normans built the first stone castle here in 1210, parts of which are incorporated into the present structure. It was built by Bishop John de Grey of Norwich, for King John of England. From 1569-1672 it was the headquarters of the President of Connacht. The Castle was occupied by Col. Richard Grace, Governor of Athlone during the first Siege of Athlone in 1690 and also played a vital role in the second Siege of 1691. In the Napoleonic era the castle was remodelled for defence and took on much of its present appearance. For almost 300 years it served as an extension of the military barracks. In 1970 it was handed over to the Office of Public Works and declared a national monument. In November 2012 the castle was re-opened following major renovations. A new visitor centre was opened with eight gallery spaces to explore. These are self-guided and one can engage and enjoy the interactive touch screens, a selection of games, a 360 degree cinematic experience of the Siege and a range of models and artefacts that help to tell the story.
The initial display tells the story of the early settlement in Athlone. A 3D interactive map details prehistoric life here up to the rise of the early Irish families. The story continues uncovering the early years of the castle, through interactive games and illustrations.
A highpoint of the Castle experience is the Siege of Athlone which is brought to life through sound and story. Athlone was besieged first in 1690 and again in 1691 by the Williamite army. In 1690 the Jacobite defenders at Athlone held out and the enemy retreated. However, in July 1691 almost 25,000 Williamite troops led by the Dutch General Godard de Ginkel returned and laid siege to the town. Ginkel's guns, in one of the heaviest bombardments in Irish history, fired 12,000 cannonballs across the Shannon badly damaging the Castle and reducing other buildings to rubble. The Williamites discovered a fording point and in a surprise attack crossed the river and captured the Castle.
The story of the Siege is greatly enhanced through the illustrations of the renowned artist Victor Ambrus. During a spectacular 360 degree audio visual presentation, the siege of Athlone is experienced and one is transported back into history when Athlone was surrounded by cannon fire. The visitor is then introduced to life-size sculptures of characters from both the Williamite and Jacobite forces. These impressive figures, made from recycled materials, were created by a specialist group of designers who have made props for films such as Harry Potter and James Bond.
The next exhibition introduces the visitor to a more recent Athlone with a range of artefacts on display that reflect education, religion, communications and the military presence in the town. For over three centuries Athlone has been a garrison town with the army playing a pivotal role in the cultural, economic and social life of the town. This space highlights the close association with the army barracks, with a range of weapons, uniforms and war memorabilia on display. By highlighting the role of the army in the town Athlone salutes the Irish army past and present.
A space dedicated to John Count McCormack, Athlone’s most famous son is also included in the visitor centre, Celebrating and perpetuating the memory of this world famous Irish tenor. Born John Francis McCormack in the Bawn, Athlone on 14th June 1884, John Count McCormack went on to become the most celebrated tenor of his day. Learn more about his life and times.
In the lower Keep of the castle is an exhibition focusing on the theme of “A Self Sufficient People” with a range of folk-life artefacts on display showing just how self-sufficient Athlonians were. Examples of trades on display include farmer, publican and apothecary. Finally, an exhibition entitled ‘Death and Destruction’ is situated in the former castle magazine. This grim offering shows how the people of Athlone were affected by the devastation of the Siege…
Athlone Castle Café
Light refreshments are available in the castle café in the reception area. There is seating for approx 32 inside and out.
Athlone Castle Courtyard
The Castle provides a panoramic view over the Shannon and the town from the vantage point of the drum-towers. The courtyard has two magnificent cannons dating from the reign of George II which came to Athlone from the naval base in Hawbowline, Co Cork in 1991 and a pair of ten inch mortars which were left in Athlone when the British army withdrew in 1922. The mortars cast in 1856 are said to have come back to Athlone following the Crimean War, they would have fired a mortar-shot of 20 lbs weight over a distance of a mile and a half.
Also situated in the Castle courtyard is a giant outdoor chess set where visitors can test their game strategy and attempt to attack and capture opponent's pieces ultimately calling check mate on their king.
Athlone Castle Visitor Centre
St Peter's Square
See website opening times and admission details