In common with many Irish placenames there are several suggestions as to how Athlone (Ath Luain) got its name. The most widely accepted is that it means ‘The ford of Luan’ and that Luan was a person who had an inn on the banks of the river near the ancient ford and that he guided travellers safely across the Shannon.
Athlone grew up at a strategic crossing point of the middle Shannon, the chain of eskers formed at the end of the last Ice-Age cross the country from east to west and when they crossed the lordly Shannon they formed a ford. Above Athlone the Shannon opens out into the vast expanse of Lough Ree while below Athlone the Shannon meanders towards Clonmacnoise.
The sheer quantity of stray finds in the river-bed at Athlone suggests that the ford was an important crossing point since Neolithic times and we know from the Annals that a causeway was built across the Shannon by the kings of Meath and Connaught in the year 1000AD. The discovery of early Christian grave-slabs in the locality may suggest that the town had an unrecorded Early Christian monastery. About the year 1150 the Cluniac monks established a priory on the west bank of the Shannon and by 1239 the Franciscans had settled on the east bank.
The building of a royal castle and a bridge, by Bishop John de Gray, for King John in 1210 was the catalyst for development of the town. Initially the settlements radiated out from the Castle which provided an element of security but the location of the parish church to the east of the river and the development of a linear main street suggests its Anglo-Norman origins.
Athlone was a walled town in medieval times. The first town was probably built c1251 and two town gates (the Dublin Gate and the North Gate) were certainly built by 1578 and in the mid-seventeenth century bastions were added and the defences were improved.
Athlone played an important part in the Williamite and Jacobite wars. The town was besieged by the Williamites in 1690 and again in 1691. In the aftermath of the second siege when Athlone fell to the Jacobites the Williamites moved on and engaged the enemy again at the Battle of Aughrim. These events have been well documented by Dr Harman Murtagh.
The nineteenth century witnessed great infrastructural changes which impacted positively on Athlone. Because of the natural ford at Athlone the Shannon had not been navigable through the town, in 1757 a solution was found by cutting a canal to the west of the town. However, the Shannon Navigation works of the 1840s opened up the Shannon to boat traffic and a weir-wall and lock-gates were built at Athlone as well as strong retaining walls to regulate the flow of the river through Athlone.
The mid-nineteenth century saw a great flurry of railway activity. The first railway company to reach Athlone was the Midland Great Western with the extension of their line from Mullingar to Galway in 1851. The Great South and Western Railway linked Athlone with Tullamore in 1859 and the following year the short-lived Great Northern and Western Railway Company opened their line between Athlone and Roscommon which was later extended to Westport.
Athlone is well endowed with a healthy variety of sporting clubs and organisations. Three of the major catalysts for the growth of sports in the town have been the development of the Regional Sports Centre by Athlone Town Council and the contribution of Athlone Institute of Technology and Custume Barracks to sport over the years. Athletics seems set to prosper with the development of a state of the art track in Athlone IT. Athlone Town F.C. was founded in 1887 and is still flourishing. Athlone GAA Club was established in 1885 and has its own grounds called Park Ciaráin. Athlone GAA is the Gaelic Football club and they are Westmeath’s most successful club with 20 Senior Footballing titles, the hurling club is called ‘Southern Gaels’. During the 1993-94 season Athlone RFC and Ballinasloe RFC ran a trial amalgamation, four years later they cemented this relationship by forming the Buccaneers Rugby Club and have since proven themselves to be a force to be reckoned with in Connaught rugby.
One of the most famous sons of Athlone was John Count McCormack (1884-1946) the world famous tenor. More recently the tenor Louis Browne is a native of Athlone as is the ever popular Brendan Shine. Athlone has been the home of the All Ireland Drama Festival since its inception in 1953 and up until 2013 the town boasted three theatres: The Dean Crowe Theatre, Athlone Little Theatre and the intimate Passionfruit Theatre. A recent addition to the cultural life of Athlone is the Luan Gallery on the banks of the Shannon.
The 19th century portrait painter, Richard Rothwell (1800-68), was born in Athlone and the artist and designer, Evelyn Gleeson (1844-1944) spent her formative years in Athlone. The late Tom O’Reilly taught art in Athlone for many years and exhibited regularly at the RHA, he was also an art critic for The Irish Times. Today there are many professional artists working in the Athlone area and exhibiting nationally and internationally.
The novelist John Broderick (1924-1989) was a native of Athlone and used the Midlands as a backdrop for a number of his bestselling novels. The late Conleth Ellis (1937-1988), a native of Carlow, lived and taught in Athlone for many years and much of his poetry reflects a Midland identity.
The late Dr Joe Ducke (1950-2009) playwright, writer and founder of Passionfruit Theatre was a native of Athlone. Among contemporary writers who are natives of Athlone are: Desmond Egan (poet), Breda Sullivan (poet) and Sean O Leochan a distinguished poet writing in the Irish language. Athlone has also produced many distinguished academics including: Dr Patrick Murray, literary critic and historian; Dr Harman Murtagh, historian, Dr Anthony Kelly, mathematician and several distinguished physicists including: Fr Julian McCrea, Dr Ciaran Ryan and Dr R.F. O’Connell.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Burke, John Athlone in the Victorian era (Athlone: Old Athlone Society, 2006)
Egan, Frank Athlone’s Golden mile (Athlone: the author, 1980)
Grannell, Fergal The Franciscans in Athlone (Athlone: Athlone Friary, 1978).
Keaney, Marian Westmeath authors (Mullingar: Longford Westmeath Joint Library Committee, 1969)
Keaney, Marian & O’Brien, Gearoid Athlone bridging the centuries (Mullingar: Westmeath County Council, 1991)
Lenihan, Jim Politics and society in Athlone 1830-1885: a rotten borough (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999)
Murtagh, Harman Athlone history and settlement to 1800 (Athlone: Old Athlone Society, 2000)
Murtagh, Harman No 6, Athlone, Historic Towns Atlas (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1996)
Murtagh, Harman (ed) Irish Midland studies: essays in commemoration of N.W. English (Athlone: Old Athlone Society, 1980)
Murtagh Harman & O’Dwyer, Michael (ed) Athlone besieged: eyewitness and other contemporary accounts of the sieges of Athlone 1690 and 1691 (Athlone: Temple Printing Co & Old Athlone Society, 1991).
O’Brien, Brendan Athlone Workhouse and the Famine (Athlone: Old Athlone Society, 1995)
O’Brien, Donal Athlone a visitors guide (Athlone: the author, 2003)
O’Brien, Gearoid Athlone in old picture postcards (Zaltbommel: The European Library, 1996)
O’Brien, Gearoid Athlone in old photographs (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2002).
O’Brien, Gearoid Athlone miscellany (Dublin: The History Press, 2011)
O’Brien, Gearoid Athlone on the Shannon, text by Gearoid O’Brien, paintings by Leila Canney (Donaghadee: Cottage Publications, 2008)
O’Brien, Gearoid (ed) Athlone tourist trail (Athlone: Athlone Chamber of Commerce, 2nd ed. 1991)
O’Brien, Gearoid St Mary’s parish, Athlone, a history (Longford: St Mel’s Diocesan Trust, 1989).
Ryan, Hazel A. Athlone Abbey graveyard inscriptions (Mullingar: Longford Westmeath Joint Library Committee, 1987)