Athlone/Baile Átha Luain, meaning "The Town of the Ford of Luain". is a town in County Westmeath in Ireland's East Coast and Midlands. The town is located in the southwest corner of the county. It has a population of 20'000. The town is actually split in two by the river Shannon. One side of it is in County Roscommon and the other is in County Westmeath. The right bank of the river is the province of Leinster. The left bank of the river is in the province of Connacht. The Shannon is the biggest and longest river in Ireland.
Athlone is the nearest urban centre to the geographical centre of Ireland. It is no more than five hours drive from any point on the island. This being so makes Athlone a popular venue for conferences. Thankfully with hotels like the Prince of Wales, Hodson Bay, Sheraton and Radisson amongst others it is well equipped to play host. It is located 80 miles west of Dublin and 55 miles east of Galway. The M6 connecting Dublin with Galway skirts around the edge of the town via the bypass. The town is semicircular in shape with the river neatly dividing it in two halves. Athlone is 5.5 miles in width and 2.5 miles in depth. Unfortunately Athlone is not a planned town unlike nearby Longford, Birr or Ballinasloe. This is reflected in the higgeldy piggeldy layout of the original streets. What small semblance of planning there is, is centered on the streets adjacent to the Castle on the left bank. The old Dublin to Galway road travels through the length of the town from east to west. The other main roads feeding into the town come from Roscommon and Cavan. The Roscommon side of the town has much more new housing development than the Westmeath side. Indeed the Monksland area of Athlone, in County Roscommon is the largest urban area in that county. To the north of the town is Lough Ree. To the south, ten miles away is the ancient monastic site of Clonmacnoise located by the river Shannon. Athlone's strategic location may account for the presence of the large Custume Barracks. This is located on the West side of the Shannon. It is a large employer in the town. Athlone is predominately a blue collar town. Manufacturing giants Elan and Ericsson have plants in the town. An Post has a distribution centre and a section of the Department of Education is also here. There is a third level college, Athlone Institute of Technology, located a mile east of the town centre. Athlone Town Centre, a large mixed use development opened in November 2007. It comprises shops, apartments and a Sheraton hotel. It is located just off Church St. Beside the ATC is the Civic Centre for the town. It was built in 2003 and the new ATC blends in with it. To the left of the Civic Centre is the Prince of Wales Hotel, better known simply as the Prince. Beside the Prince is the old Church of Ireland. The aforementioned locations constitute the heart of the town centre. In terms of retail the east side of the river houses most places of interest. As much as Athlone has a main street it is Church St. It starts at the river and runs east to meet Dublingate Street. It used to be lined with well known national chain stores and was therefore very vibrant. Unfortunately the Golden Island Shopping centre, which opened in 1997, drew the chain stores away from Church Street. On the West side of the river there is a cluster of landmarks located adjacent to each other. The symbol of Athlone is the twin towered Church of St Peter's and Paul. Behind the church is the barracks. Opposite the church is Athlone Castle. Connaught St on the left bank of the river used to be a thriving commercial spot and the main street on that side of the river. Sadly, there is now widespread evidence of decay and dereliction. There is a lovely apartment scheme built two years ago which only serves to highlight air of neglect around it. The streets close to the left side of river Shannon have a bohemian feel to them. They house some of the best restaurants in the town. Sean's Bar near the Castle claims to be the oldest in Ireland. The river Shannon is the main reason for tourism in the town. The town gets its fair share of Europeans who take boats on the river either as day trips or accommodation. Due to a lack of proper water defences and probably lack of dredging the town is prone to flooding. In October 2009 parts of the left bank and along the right bank at the strand were badly affected by flooding. The world famous tenor Count John McCorma ck was born in Athlone. His birthplace is currently occupied by a Chinese takeaway. You have to make due with a statue opposite the barracks.
There is no tourist information office in the town at present. There are leaflets at the Civic Centre. The Library is located in the Civic Centre. Bistop is the nearest internet cafe to the Civic Centre. There is no general hospital in Athlone. Portiuncla hospital in Ballinasloe is 16 miles away. There is a general practice located behind the Civic Centre and adjacent to the ATC. There may be left luggage facilities at the train station. There is a laundromat on John Broderick Street called Shannon Dry Cleaners opposite Dunnes Stores. There is the full spectrum of Supermarkets including Tesco, Dunnes, Lidl, Aldi, Centra, Spar etc throughout the town. For those who need their fix of fast food their is a Burger King at the Golden Island Shopping Centre and a Subway at the bridge. McDonalds is on the edge of town at the Kilmartin Retail Park. Between the river and Dunnes you will find the Allied Irish Bank, Ulster Bank and the Bank of Ireland. All three have on street ATM machines. There are two Post Office's. One is between the Civic Centre and the ATC. The other is on Pearse Street across the river. Should you need a barber their is Dec's on Lloyd's lane just off Church Street and five minutes from the Civic Offices. There are ladies hairdressers all over town. Should you need fuel for your car there is Green Apple in Arcadia, and Topaz on the Dublin road. In terms of car parking there is parking at the Fair Green along Garden Vale, you have the two shopping centres and also at the Strand at the end of LLoyd's lane.
You can reach Athlone by landing in Dublin or Shannon. Athlone is just 90 minutes from either Dublin or Shannon Airport. Citylink bus company connects Dublin Airport with Athlone via it's Galway route. The bus stops at Arcadia about 15 minute walk north from the Civic Centre. The stop is a bus shelter.
Athlone is serviced hourly by Bus Eireann from either Galway or Dublin during daylight hours. The bus station is beside the train station. I think there is a daily bus to Waterford, Sligo, Cork and Limerick. Within the town their is a local Bus Eireann service serving Monksland on the west side of the town.
Citylink multistop service from Galway to Dublin also stops in Athlone, at the B&Q store.
Athlone Castle - great for history-lovers. Originally built for England's King John in 1210, it was twice besieged in the 17th century (The Siege of Athlone) before finally being captured by the Williamites. The closing decades of the seventeenth century were among the most turbulent in this country's history. It is not surprising then to realise that the most dramatic events in the history of Athlone occurred during the Williamite and Jacobite Wars.
In 1690 the town was besieged by 10,000 Williamite troops under the command of General James Douglas. The Jacobite force present in the town, under the command of the Governor of Athlone, Colonel Richard Grace, resolutely refused to surrender. Following a week long siege the Williamites retreated.
Athlone enjoyed a year of relative peace until June of 1691 when the town was again besieged by the Williamites. This time it was the full Williamite Army of almost 25,000 men led by the Dutch General, Godard de Ginkel which laid siege to the town. The Williamites quickly captured the Leinster town but the jacobites broke down the bridge to stem their advance. Under the command of the French genera, the Marquis de St. Ruth, they courageously resisted all attempts to repair it. A brave Sergeant of Dragoons, Custume by name, lost his life in his attempts to dislodge the vigorous repair works and by so doing became a folk hero celebrated in poetry and story. Ginkels guns, in one of the heaviest bombardments in Irish history, fired 12,000 cannonballs into the tiny Connacht town badly damaging Athlone 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.
Church of St Peter & Paul is the symbol of Athlone. This twin towered church, built in the 1930's was recently cleaned up and looks very well.
A bronze bust of Count John McCormack, Athlone native and renowned singer, is located on the promenade in Athlone. Count John McCormack was born in Athlone on June 14th 1884. His father, Andrew McCormack had been lured to Ahlone, from Galasheils in the Scottish lowlands by the prospect of employment in Athlone Woollen Mills. In time Andrew was to become a foreman in these Mills which had a world-wide reputation for the quality of the tweeds they produced. In 1903 John won the coveted gold medal in the tenor class of the Dublin Feis Ceoil. It was this victory which was to lead to a phenomenal singing career. In 1907 John made his operatic debut in Covent Gardens in Cavaleria Rusticana. He was made Count of the Papal Court in 1928 by Pope Pius Xl. Having conquered the operatic world John turned his attention to the concert stage where he was soon to become the most popular lyric tenor of his day. Apart from his rendition of popular Irish songs John McCormack was renowned for his masterful singing of German lieder He made successful concert tours of America, Australia and Europe but in Ireland the highlight of his career was his singing of Panis Angelicus at the open air mass for the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin's Phoenix Park in 1932. John's colourful career spanned almost forty years and included a brief but lucrative career in Hollywood. His earnings for the film Song O'My Heart in 1930 was estimated to be in the region of $500,000 John McCormack died in Dublin on September 16th 1945 and is buried in Deans Grange Cemetery. The bronze bust of McCormack on the promenade in Athlone, the work of the Cork sculptor Seamus Murphy, was unveiled in 1970.
The following are worth a look for those interested in architecture
Church of Ireland, located on Church St. A typical Protestant church with the unusual accompanient of a seperate tower.
Dillon Shoes, on the corner of Church St and Northgate St. It has a lovely decorative red brick front. Particularly over the doorway.
Methodist Church , on Northgate Street. A quaint stone structure with twin mini spires.
Gainsborough House, opposite the Methodist Church. It has a neat inset window on the second floor.
Allied Irish Bank This branch at the bridge is typical of such buildings around the country save for the nice pedestrian bridge leading into it.
Workhouses, on Northgate St. These were again typical of such buildings put up in Irish towns. A fine broad stone structure in good condition at least from the outside.
Court Devenish House, located off Northgate St/Church St. The grounds are private but the roadside allows a clear view of this fine Jacobean House from the 17th century. Their is also the ruins of an abbey on the grounds again visible from the roadside.
St Mary's Church in St Mary's Square, just beyond Church Street, is a fine RC parish church and the best of its kind on the east side of the town.
Franciscan Friary on Friary Lane, off Church St, is a nice replica of the older style stone churches built throughout the country with the tower at the side of the church.
The Old Train Station located just beyond the barracks. This is a fine long classical stone structure.
Garden Vale located between the train/bus station and Church St. This is the best example of red/grey brick old world housing in the town. It consists of two/three storey imposing townhouses.
Church of Corpus Christi is located off Pearse Street on the west side of the river. A nice small stone parish church hidden away.
Father Matthew Hall is situated oppposite St Peter's and Paul. It is a neat brick structure which used to house the library. Sadly now derelict. It took a petition to stop local authorities from demolishing it.
Pearse Street is home to a run of buildings on the right hand side as you walk up from St Peter's and Paul. They are occupied by various state bodies and are typical of state architecture from the 1940's. They include the Post Office, Garda Station, and Social Welfare Office.
Golden Island Shopping Centre has the likes of Tesco, Argos, Lifestyle Sports etc as well as Athlone's cineplex.
Athlone Town Shopping Centre features well known clothing stores such as M & S, River Island, H & M as well as Next, Easons and various eateries. It is a visually appealing and well laid out over two floors.
McGorisk for Men, 12 Church St., 090 6476688. Stockists of Hilfiger, Lacoste, Gant, State of Art, Replay, Gas, Diesel. Classy man's shop with a bridal shop upstairs.
Allens, 8 Church St., 090 6472826. Giftware, Kitchen shop and bedlinen store over two floors. Stockists of brands including Waterford Crystal, Belleek, Mason, Le Creuset, Denby, Nao etc.
Church St, Features amongst the aforementioned, a fine selection of independent stores not found in shopping centres. These include Burgess Department Store (clothing and homewares), Sheffield Jewellers, Olivia Danielle (Classy Boutique), other female clothing shops including Jezebelle, Paco, Devernois and Clara Ellen. Shoe Zone is the last national chain store left on the street.
Wood B Designs, Sean Costelloe St, 090 6477468. Stockists of quirky quality wooden handmade gifts as well as family crests.
Clonmacnoise, is located ten miles south of Athlone near Shannonbridge, Co Offaly. Along with Glendalough, Clonmacnoise is the best monastic site in Ireland. Head for Birr and turn off at Ballinahowen.
Glasson, four miles northeast of Athlone , on the main Athlone to Cavan road, is a neat village, quaint and well maintained. Good views of Lough Ree on your left as you drive out from Athlone.
Locke's Distillery, is located in Kilbeggan, twenty miles east of Athlone along the M6.
Clonfert is the location for a small cathedral with a stunning romanesque doorway. It is almost opposite Clonmacnoise. Take the motorway heading for Galway, and then branch off for Portumna at Ballinasloe. Along that road you'll see it signposted.
Birr formerly known as Parsonstown, is a beautiful heritage town in County Offaly located 28 miles southeast of Athlone along the N52. The road takes you through the boggy plains of the Midlands.
Ardagh is a heritage village in County Longford. It is a beautiful old world rural English style village. It was founded by the Fetherstone family. Their house is now an agricultural college. It is about three miles off the main Athlone to Cavan road. Turn left at Carrickboy.