Athlone (ÁthLuain): the ford of Luan
The earliest recorded name for Athlone, is An Sean Áth Mor (or The Great Ford of Antiquity). By the tenth century the ford was known as ÁthLuain (the ford of Luan) with the anglicised form Athlone first recorded in a document of 1214.
A Town Divided?
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.
Athlone a Garrison Town
Athlone has been seen as having strategic importance since the twelfth century at least. It became established as a garrison town in the late seventeenth century in the aftermath of the famous Siege of Athlone. From about 1697 a military barracks existed in Athlone on the site still occupied by Custume Barracks today.
A Town of Spires
The first time visitor to Athlone is often struck by the number of churches and spires to be seen. Part of the reason for this is, of course, that Athlone has two parishes and each parish has its own church or churches. The presence of a British garrison in Athlone gave us a healthy spread of religious beliefs with several churches flourishing here in the 19th Century.
In terms of Catholic churches we have St Anthony’s Friary which was opened in 1931 but the Franciscans have had a continuous presence in Athlone since about 1240. On the Leinster side we also have St. Mary’s Church, architect John Bourke, built in 1862 and the beautiful modern the church of Our Lady Queen of Peace in Coosan designed by local architect Noel F Heavey. In St. Peter’s parish we have the magnificent church of SS Peter & Paul, architect Ralph Byrne, which overlooks the bridge and the Shannon. There are two other parish churches in Clonown (built 1965, Noel F Heavey architect) and Drum where the church was built in the 1870s and modernised in 1964. The Society of Pius X has its Catholic church in Ganly Lane in a former Church of Ireland building and regular Tridentine mass services are held here.
St. Mary’s Church of Ireland, built in 1827, enjoys a town centre location and is one of the most interesting buildings in Athlone. The Church of Ireland originally had churches on both sides of the town but these were amalgamated and St. Peter’s Church of Ireland closed in the 1940s. There is a Methodist church on Northgate Street which was built to the design of A.J. Jones in 1862 and a modern Baptist chapel on Battery Road. In the past we also had an active Presbyterian community with their own church on the docks which was built in 1860 and served for more than a hundred years.
Athlone today reflects almost a thousand years of growth. The Castle still stands guarding the crossing point of the Shannon, as it has done now for 800 years. However, today it is a tourist attraction rather than a military fortress. The Shannon has three bridges spanning it at Athlone – the town bridge which was completed in 1844; the railway bridge which was completed in 1851 and ‘Shannon Way’ the new bridge which was opened in 1991 as part of the Athlone Relief Road project.