Athlone has developed as the largest town in the great, damp, lowland plain of Ireland because of its location at a shallow point on the River Shannon, to which esker ridges, running across the surrounding bogs and wetlands, provide convenient access from both east and west, just north of the Dublin-Galway axis.
The river itself has also been an artery of communication between the north midlands and west Munster. The river crossing explains the name Athlone – Áth Luain in Irish, meaning Luan’s ford – which has been in use for more than a thousand years.
Great changes have occurred in the course of that millennium, but the fundamental raison d’être for Athlone’s existence remains the same, and it underpins considerable continuity.
Athlone: Place and interconnections
A large number of Bronze Age finds from the riverbed implies that the river crossing at Athlone was of prehistoric significance. In Early Christian times it was eclipsed by the great monastic settlement of Clonmacnoise, ten kilometres south, where there was a bridge across the Shannon.
Athlone recovered its importance in the early twelfth century, when it became a passage for incursions into Meath by the warlike Connacht O’Connors, who constructed a series of bridges of wicker and timber, which their enemies as regularly destroyed. The Anglo-Normans reached the Shannon by 1200, and quickly identified Athlone as a bridgehead for their advance west into Connacht.
They built three thirteenth-century bridges, including one of stone. All fell, or were destroyed by the resurgent O’Connors. From 1305 a ferry was the only means of crossing the river, until 1567 when a new stone bridge was built.
Its function once more was primarily security-related: a contemporary observing that it ‘tames all Connacht’. This bridge lasted for almost 300 years. It was the focus of fighting in the wars of the 1640s, and of a dramatic struggle during the great siege of Athlone in 1691, in the war associated with Irish rejection of the Glorious Revolution.
Limerick Vikings and Munster raiders used the Shannon to travel north into Lough Ree. But the shallow water at Athlone prevented navigation through the town. The government maintained galleys above and below Athlone in the Tudor period and in the eighteenth century even built a bypass canal.
This was abandoned in the 1840s, when very extensive riverine works were completed These included a new bridge to replace the narrow Tudor structure, the dredging of the riverbed and the construction of a dam to maintain water level, with an adjoining lock. This opened the Shannon to navigation directly through Athlone for the first time. New quays and warehouses facilitated passenger steamers and cargo barges.
However, Athlone’s development as an inland port was soon retarded by the advent of the railways, which provided a faster and more efficient means of transport. Four lines converged on Athlone to cross the river via a great iron bridge, completed in 1851. Finally in 1991 a new motorway bridge, just north of the built-up area, diverted east-west traffic away from the narrow, congested streets of the old town.
Today, Athlone remains an important communications centre. Routes from all directions gravitate towards the Shannon crossing. New motorways and frequent rail services link Athlone to Dublin and Galway.
There is also a rail line to Mayo. Most of the traffic simply passes through, but a proportion goes no further, so that over the centuries the town has attracted soldiers, administrators, professionals, religious, traders, innkeepers, artisans, immigrants, countrymen, city folk and others.
There is a high turnover: many stay for a time, some for a generation, but only a fraction put down permanent roots. The modern impetus is predominantly eastwards.
Athlone: A strategic hub
Athlone’s strategic location has made it a major fortress. A wooden castle was built by the O’Connors in the twelfth century. In 1210 the Anglo-Norman government built a stone castle on the west bank of the river as a bridgehead in Connacht.
This stronghold also formed the southernmost of a triangle of royal castles intended to secure the projected settlement of the crown estate in east Connacht, a venture that ultimately failed. The castle’s constable was always to be ‘an able and sufficient person of the realm of England’.
This principle – a mark of Athlone’s importance – was generally upheld, except in the fifteenth century when royal power weakened, allowing control to pass alternately to the Gaelicised Norman Dillons of west Meath and the Gaelic O’Kellys of south Connacht. The Tudors resumed direct control.
Their stone bridge of 1567 was built beside the castle, which for the next century provided the headquarters and residence of the lord president of Connacht. The castle was badly damaged in the bombardment during the great siege of 1691. Both sides of Athlone were enclosed by town-wall fortifications in the seventeenth century, and in the early years of the nineteenth century, during the great war with Napoleonic France, an extensive range of gun batteries was erected west of the town to further secure the crossing against a French invasion force.
Athlone was included in the Irish barrack-building programme of circa 1,700. It subsequently developed into a major military base, with the barracks complex occupying an extensive enclosed site in the west town. Athlone remains an important military base, and the barracks today is headquarters of 4th Western Brigade and home to a regular infantry battalion. The enduring army presence has given Athlone a pronounced military character, reflected, for example, in a tradition of enlistment, an acceptance of uniforms and a welcome for the soldiers’ on-going involvement in local sporting, cultural, social and philanthropic activities. Occasional tensions between soldiers and civilians, chiefly related to ‘law and order’ issues are long past. The army has always been a major conduit of ‘new blood’ into the town; it has also given numerous Athlone residents overseas experience, originally in the British Empire and since the 1960s in various United Nations peacekeeping operations.
The Twin Towns of Athlone
Although Athlone’s centrality has given rise to recurrent - if never fulfilled - proposals to make it the Irish capital, paradoxically it lies on the periphery of virtually every other division of administration, civil and ecclesiastical. Since Athlone became a borough in 1599, the town has been an urban unit, managed by a corporation or council. Until l885 it was also a parliamentary constituency.
Geographically the town centre is the river, but it creates a substantial physical divide between the settlements on either bank. Each part developed its own commercial streets and (in the past) market. The division is accentuated by their location in separate provinces, counties, dioceses and even parishes.
Thus west town is in the province of Connacht, the diocese of Elphin and the parish of Saints Peter and Paul; whereas the east town is in Leinster province, Ardagh and Clonmacnoise diocese and St Mary’s parish. Until legislation of 1898 united the two parts of the Athlone in County Westmeath, west Athlone was in County Roscommon.
Even today substantial suburban development, without an equivalent urban-boundary adjustment, means that much of Athlone’s extensive new western suburbs are in County Roscommon, where they form its most populous town.
The division of population base between two counties weakens Athlone’s political influence in government, both local and national. Not only do east- and west-town residents worship in different churches, but the ecclesiastical division has generated parallel school and social-support systems that impede social cohesion. Furthermore, because the west town is poorer and its commercial core visibly more decayed, its residents harbour a mild sense of resentment against their fellow east-town neighbours and their institutions across the river.
Those offended by what they perceive to be an absence of civic spirit often attribute it to the fact that Athlone is a ‘garrison town’. While it is true that the physical presence of the castle and army barracks on the west river bank contribute to the physical isolation from each other of the two parts of Athlone, the day is long past when a military presence per se - no longer in the form of a transient British army garrison – can be said to impact adversely on the townspeople’s social cohesion, pride of place or self-perception as a community.
Athlone: Urban Life and Economy
In medieval times the security provided by the castle encouraged the development of a nucleated settlement with markets, fairs, water mills, fisheries, a parish church, two religious houses and a hospital. The town-core street plan evolved along the routes leading to and from the river crossing, which followed the eskers to give Athlone its characteristic straggly, linear appearance.
Urban plots had short street frontages, and long, narrow gardens, which were often sites for humbler dwellings accessed by laneways. The little extant information suggests that the leading thirteenth-century townsmen were also Anglo-Norman, although Gaelic Irish would probably have clustered in the suburbs, where, in common with other Norman towns, there is still an ‘Irishtown’ placename
The dissolution of the religious houses in the sixteenth century encouraged development. By 1620 a population of about 1,300 lived in 200 houses, many constructed ‘of brick and stone after the English manner’. Most were still catholic, and this remained the case, although the subsequent Cromwellian conquest established a Protestant elite that dominated civic and commercial life for the next three centuries. Catholics continued to play a role, however, and although the pope was burned in effigy in 1685, there was otherwise little evidence of overt sectarian tension.
Change in the character of the power élites, when it came, was gradual and paeceful. Although Athlone grew in size and population in the eighteenth century, it fell behind coastal towns, and its relative importance declined. Classified in the 1690s as one of the ten principal towns in Ireland, by 1798 it was no longer included in the top twenty-three. In the early nineteenth century cheap imports from the new industries in the north of England undermined local domestic textile manufacturing, creating widespread poverty that was somewhat alleviated by the construction of a large workhouse.
Part of the trouble in Athlone’s case stemmed from the fact that much of the town was owned by an absentee landlord: a protestant school charity that possessed neither the skill nor the will to advance development.
The turning point came in the 1840s, first with the improvements to the Shannon navigation and then with the advent of the railways. Athlone industrialised, developing woollen mills and a cotton factory, which were major employers of labour, much of it female, albeit at low wage rates. With the army, the industrial workforce played an important role in the development of local sport. By the 1960s these textile industries were in decline. Athlone experienced a period of recession, relieved in the 1970s by European and American companies that established manufacturing and service enterprises in the pharmaceutical and telecommunications sectors.
Today, with retailing, these continue to provide the backbone of local employment. The establishment of an institute of technology in 1970, now providing third-level education in the skills needed for modern industry and commerce to 6,000 students, has improved Athlone’s attraction as a location for development.
The traditional business centres were Church Street/Mardyke Street in east town and Main Street/High Street/Connaught Street in west town. These and the adjoining streets were the location of the larger shops, inns/hotels and some of the most prestigious residences. Both locations have suffered a decline. The business of the west town has gradually shifted east. Initially this was a gradual process precipitated by the relocation of the 1844 bridge and the subsequent development of a new main Galway road along the riverbank. These developments reduced former principal streets, such as Main Street and High Street to backwaters.
In recent years there has been some recovery of the ‘left bank’ as a location for restaurants, pubs and curio/antique shops. In the east town the development of the Golden Island Shopping Centre, opened in 1997, impacted very adversely on the traditional businesses in Church Street/Mardyke Street, which witnessed many closures, a high turnover of tenants and descent into bargain and fast-food enterprises.
This deterioration has been somewhat arrested by the building of a new Civic Centre and adjoining Town Centre Shopping Centre, comprising fifty-four shops and a 12-storey hotel, opened in 2007. Inns and hotels continue to be of importance: currently Athlone and its hinterland has eight modern or re-furbished hotels. This recent commercial development has attracted business to Athlone from its all over the midlands. However, the tenants are chiefly well-known national or international retail chains and the traditional local shopkeeper is seldom involved.
There has been a parallel shift in many service industries, such as banks, insurance, transport and the professions. Specialisation and technology has centralised major decision-making and many of their services to Dublin or elsewhere.
Athlone: A Town at the Crossroads?
Like many other towns across Ireland and Britain, Athlone’s future hangs in the balance. As we have seen the traditional economy and long-established patterns of urban organisation are being challenged, by changes occurring at a national and international level. But place remains important. Who can doubt that Athlone’s location on the all-important river crossing will ensure its future relevance - albeit adapted to new conditions – just as it has moulded its past.
- Harman Murtagh was writing in response to the BBC/Open University co-production Town With Nicholas Crane