History of Connaught and Leinster Sides
Compiled by Gearoid O' Brien
The river Shannon divides the town of Athlone into two parishes, two dioceses, two counties and two provinces. The two Catholic parishes in Athlone are: St. Mary’s, to the east which is in the dioceses of Ardagh and Clonmacnois and St. Peter’s, to the west which is in Elphin. The suburban area west of Athlone is in County Roscommon and the province of Connaught while Athlone town belongs in County Westmeath and the province of Leinster. Until the Local Government Act of 1899 all of Athlone west of the Shannon was considered to be in County Roscommon but for administrative purposes the urban area west of Athlone has since been considered as part of County Westmeath.
History of Connaught side
The Church of SS Peter & Pauls
The Connaught side was a hive of bustling activity with St. Peters at the epicentre in the Square. St. Peter's church was originally on the Dean Crowe Theatre site. It was built in two phases, the first as early as 1795 when it would have been no more than a small chapel; it was then enlarged in 1809. This building served as the parish church until the completion of SS. Peter & Paul's church in the Square in 1937 under the stewardship of Dean John Crowe at a cost of over 120,000 (pounds).
We know that the priory of Saints Peter and Paul existed at Athlone before 1200. There is a tradition, recorded by a seventeenth century author, that Toirrdelbach Ua Conchobair founded it about 1150, as part of a twelfth century ecclesiastical reform movement.
Abbey Lane near the castle takes its name from this Cluniac Priory that was built here in the twelfth century, known as The Priory of SS. Peter and Paul or de Innocentia, it was unique in being the only foundation of the Cluniac foundation in Ireland. At the end of the middle ages, it comprised a church of single nave and transept, with a tower, cloister and conventional buildings.
The Battery Bridge- The Canal
The bridge is a good vantage point from which to survey the site of the batteries and the canal. The original bridge of masonry construction was designed by Thomas Omer, the engineer responsible for the cutting of Athlone Canal in 1757. The Athlone Canal marked the first attempts to make the River Shannon fully navigable at Athlone. It was the mid nineteenth century before this actually happened, with the completion of the Shannon Navigation works.
Looking towards the buildings that once were high rise developments we see the site of the main Batteries. Because of the strategic position of the Athlone, one of the principal crossing points of the middle of the Shannon, it was realised towards the end of the eighteenth century that the defenses of the town should be provided.
Following the outbreak of war with the French Republic in 1793 and the attempted landing of the French at Bantry Bay in 1796, a total of eight Batteries were constructed on the western edge of Athlone. All but a small portion of the No.1 battery have been destroyed. So while little remains to be seen the place itself is steeped in history and the name the Batteries is applied to an area which was formerly called Spa Park.
This was also the location of the original Athlone Golf Club originally known as Athlone Garrison Club. At this time the land in the Batteries was poor with restricted grass growth and was seen as an ideal place to play golf. Quick to realise this, the officers of the garrison formed a club and laid out a golf course. According to The Golfing Annual published in 1896 the Athlone Garrison Golf Club was founded in 1892. This is the only evidence available. There are no records of the 'founding fathers'. With the arrival of major Harrison of the Royal Artillery to Athlone in 1895, that the Athlone Garrison Golf Club really started to prosper. He was appointed president of the club in 1896 and held that post until 1899. An enthusiastic golfer he played a vital part in the nurturing of the game in those years.
It is of interest to note that many of the townspeople who were to play important roles in the golf club in the ensuing years were at this time (1893/94) actively associated with various sports organisations in the town. These included Mr. Baile, MA, P.V.C. Murtagh, J. Lyster JP, Dr. C. J. McCormack, J. J. Coen and others. Along with the golf course the Batteries was also a place of general recreation, but all of this was to come to an end when the death knell was sounded at the October 1913 meeting of the Urban District Council. The clerk announced that the agent had agreed to the council acquiring the interests of the golf club - compulsory powers would be used and the price fixed, plans were being prepared. The councillors had at last been successful in their campaign for housing on the Batteries. In 1920 the golf club relocated to Garnafailagh. In 1938 the golf club made its last move to Hodson Bay where it still stands.
The Shamrock Lodge
To the South, on the right of the canal, set in a wooded site is the Shamrock Lodge Country House Hotel. It was once the residence of a branch of the Robinson family, prominent brewers and distillers in the nineteenth century Athlone.The gardens were developed and the house extended by the Coen family who first opened it as a hotel. Among the distinguished guests who dined there were Princess Grace of Monaco and Queen Salote of Tonga.
One of the great streets of old Athlone, Connaught Street, is now in need of major re-investment but at one time it vied with Church Street as the major business street in the town. Many of the old business houses were run by wealthy farming families from south Roscommon who established their businesses here. It boasts many interesting shop-fronts, sadly fast disappearing. The old 'Noggin Inn' doorway with its columns and fine fanlight is one of the architectural gems of old athlone.
Connaught Street has important literary links with the novelist John Broderick and the poet Desmond Egan who were both natives of the street, and both of whom have written about Connaught Street.
Dean Crowe Memorial Theatre
Built in 1800 this building served as the parish church until the new church of SS. Peter and Paul was completed in 1937. The altar placed against the wall in the middle of the building, seating on three sides, with three galleries overhead.
In 1937 the church was converted to use as a parochial hall and given the name of the much loved parish priest. Initially it was used as a dance hall, but in recent years it has been used for plays, concerts and recitals. Since 1959 the All-Ireland Amateur Drama Festival has been held there each year. It was officially opened as a the Dean Crowe Theatre & Arts Centre in October 2002.
History of Leinster side
The Bridge of Athlone
The old bridge famous in history, was built in 1566, in the ninth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The bridge, which was 360 feet long and 14 feet wide, had nine arches, with pillars built on stones thrown into the river and held in position by wooden piles. The new bridge was open to the public early in November 1844, The swivel span, incorporated into the bridge to permit boats with high superstructure to pass, had for years been declared dangerous for modern traffic, and was replaced in the early 1960s by a fixed span.
This riverside park is a memorial park to Thomas Burgess, founder of the well-known firm of Thomas Burgess & Co., Church St. Athlone. William Burgess donated the Park to the town in 1924. From the steps in Burgess Park one can appreciate the fine sweep of the Weir, which was built as part of the Shannon navigation works of the 1840s.
This curious little street was once the principal eastern exit from the fortified town. The gate tower in Dublingate St. was protected by a bastion shaped defence work. The road passed through the flank of the bastion and followed the layout of its exterior as far as Mardyke St. Later the gate tower was demolished and the awkward dog-leg exit by-passed in favour of a new route directly through the face of the bastion. The original bawn was probably the interior of the bastion. In recent times the claim to fame of the Bawn lies not in terms of its role in the defence of the walled town, but rather that John McCormack the famous tenor was born here on June 14th, 1884.
The Ritz cinema, designed by Michael Scott was completed in 1940. The building as it stood until recent years looked rather different from that which the architect intended it to be. The river side terrace was never developed. And the glass paneling in the front was replaced with concrete.
The AIB Bank
The corner of NorthGate Street and Custume place has been a bank corner since a branch of the rovisional Bank was opened here in 1827. It was the first branch of a large commercial bank to be opened in the town. In 1861 the bank moved to the present purpose-built premises (architect W.G Murray) where it now operates as the Athlone branch of AIB Bank. A coach factory on the site prior to this, was once used as a temporary theatre. The site was used in succession as the location for a drapery store, a post office, a temperance hotel and a supermarket. Now after a lapse of many years it's a bank, this time it's the National Irish Bank that resides here.
In front of the bank leading down to the river, is Hatters' Lane where in the seventeenth century a thriving industry, the manufacture of felt hats, was established and brought a measure of fame to the town.
As we approach the friary from the river and enter the forecourt, we notice the statue of Saint Francis and the Boy. According to tradition, the boy was bringing doves to the market in Sienna to sell when he met the saint, who persuaded the youngster to give him the doves so that they could be set free. The statue was erected in 1976 to commemorate the 750th anniversay of the death of St. Francis. Behind it is a stone arcade containing details of the history of the Franciscans in Athlone. The stone started life as the windows of the officers mess in Tipperary Army Barracks and was brought to Athlone when that building was demolished in 1977. The foundation stone of the Franciscan church was laid in January 1930 and the church was opened in December 1931. The church is dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua.
The church in Hiberno-Romanesque style was designed by Kelly and Jones of Dublin, and built by Murphy Brothers. The facade has features combined with Irish themes taken from clonmacnoise-the rounded doorways and the rounded tower-with a large rose window incorporating a celtic style cross similar to that to that used as the symbol of the Eucharist Congress in 1932. This latter theme is continued to the lunettes over the doors in opus sextile by Miss CA. O'Brien - the sacrifice of the Melchisedech on the left, the last supper in the center and mass in penal days on the right. On entering the church the visitor is immediately impressed by the generous dimensions.
St. Mary's Square
The Gothic Church to the design of John Bourke was completed in 1862. Inside the porch, on the right, is a memorial tablet to Fr.Kieran Kilroe, in it Fr.Kilroe is depicted presenting the church to Our Lady. The tablet is by John Hogan Jnr. The property lying to the left of the church as you ascend approaching the church, was part of the old Marist Brother complex, the building nearest the church was the boy's national school in which John McCormack and his friend Michael Curley (later Archbishop of Baltimore and Washington) received their early education. On your right is the former Baptist church which dates from 1845.
The Southern Station
The Great Southern and Western Railway reached Athlone in 1859 but there were protracted difficulties between themselves and the Midland Great Western Railway which had arrived years earlier. The case was put to arbitration before a Mr. Lemans, a railway expert, and a settlement of the dispute about Athlone traffic was reached. The basis of agreement was to give 65% of all passenger reciepts and 55% of goods reciepts to the M.G.W.R. The station, designed by George Wilkinson, became a goods station in the mid 1920s. In January 1985 the station re-opened as Athlone Railway Station. The extensive renovations which have been carried out surely make it one of the most attractive and comfortable stations in the country.
The Abbey Graveyard
The Abbey Graveyard is situated at the junction of Northgate St. and Abbey Rd. It was on the dry ground just above the stream that the Franciscans decided to build their new church and friary just as Catholic hopes were rising after James II became king in 1685. The followers of St. Francis of Assisi had come to Athlone in the 1230's and their first church had been consecrated in 1241. This was situated beside the Shannon at the southern end of the new Silver Quay apartment development.
The friars were forced to flee from the town probably when Sir William Brabazon became constable of Athlone castle in 1548. After a period of persecution a new residence was set up near Athlone in 1620. Friars Island became the base for Franciscan activity, although a house was obtained within the town walls in the 1640s. Then in 1687 a decision was taken that the Order would open a novitiate in Athlone. This was probably the stimulus for the commencement of building operations. The work was proceeding extremely well in 1688, but the outbreak of the war in Ireland meant that construction was never completed. Indeed the walls of the building were used as a defence for British troops during the Siege of Athlone in 1691.
With the coming of the Penal Laws some of the Franciscans in Athlone went into hiding while others officially registered as parish clergy. It was some time after the beginning of the Penal Laws that the friars abandoned hope of completing their church outside the North Gate. Soon afterwards it became the main graveyard for Athlone, a role it continued to fulfil until it was officially closed in 1871, although occasional burials did take place until the late 1940s. In the meantime the friars had ceased running the parish of St. Mary's and had settled on their present site.
When the Franciscans began to build at the site of the present Abbey Graveyard, it seems to have been almost an island rising above the river. Descriptions of funerals there in later years mention not only the wailing of the women as the remains were carried by, but also that a cart carrying clay to cover the body often brought up the rear of the cortege. This would indicate that the level of the cemetery has risen considerably over the centuries. This may also account for the necessity of building a wall around the grounds in 1815. But the most intriguing facet about the graveyard is that it may have been the site of an early monastery, possibly the origin of the town itself. Four, possibly five, graveslabs from an Early Christian period have been discovered on the site. One probably commemorates Aillill Ua Dunchado, a King of Connaught who died in 764. Another known as the Evangelist
Slab has been described as the most exciting piece of stone carving from the Early Irish period outside of the high crosses. There is no written evidence for a monastic foundation at the Abbey Graveyard, although such did exist at nearby Clonown, Drum and Hare Island.