Athlone Castle

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Athlone Castle

Surely there must have been a bridge here since ancient times – here where an Ice Age ridge (an esker) fords the mighty Shannon, halfway between Dublin and Galway?

Áth is ford and Luain is loins. When the mythical White Bull of Connacht was defeated by Ulster’s Brown Bull, his remains were scattered across the land. Ath Luain – Athlone, right in the heart of Ireland – is where the loins were left.

The King of Connacht built the first recorded Bridge of Athlone in 1120, for forays into Meath. Within a few decades the Normans swept that wooden bridge away and built a stone one in its place. Plus a many-sided stone castle to watch over it, on the river’s western bank. 

So the castle faced its enemies from the east. And across the centuries, its enemies came.

Never so devastating as in 1691. A year earlier, the town survived a siege by 10,000 troops loyal to William III. Now these Protestant forces returned, their numbers more than doubled. Athlone’s great nine-arch Elizabethan bridge was unbreached. But they found and crossed the ford, devastated the town and forced the castle to surrender. 

One account says they fired 12,000 cannon balls; another that they killed 12,000 Catholic Jacobites. Such symmetry suggests the truth is blurred. But whatever the numbers, victory was theirs … and it was bloody.

Standing on these battlements today the scene is tranquil – colourful left-bank buildings jostling up against the castle’s walls, the wide tree-lined sweep of the Shannon, the silver waters of the weir, tourist boats departing for Clonmacnoise and Lough Ree, and modern Athlone on the opposite bank, busy with commerce. Inside the castle, 21st-century displays cut through the mists of time, revealing Ireland’s tumultuous past through the stories of this ancient ford.