Athlone Castle

Caisleán Bhaile Átha Luain

Athlone Castle

Caisleán Bhaile Átha Luain

Ireland's Hidden Heartlands by Abarta Heritage

Located at one of the most important crossing points of the River Shannon, Athlone Castle has been at the centre of Irish history for centuries.

The History of Athlone Castle

Athlone Castle was built to defend a strategic crossing point of the River Shannon, forming a well-guarded gateway into Connacht. It is likely that the original Norman castle was constructed on the site of an earlier fortification established by the Ua Conchobair (O’Connor) kings of Connacht, as the Annals of the Four Masters record that a castle and bridge were built at Athlone by Toirrdelbach Ua Conchobair in 1129.

The present castle began to take its shape in 1210, when John de Grey was ordered by King John of England to build three castles in Connacht. However, just one year after it was constructed, the stone tower collapsed, killing nine men, including Richard de Tuite, the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. The castle was quickly rebuilt, and historical records show significant sums were spent on its maintenance and upkeep throughout the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

During the chaos that engulfed Ireland in the wake of the Bruce invasion of 1315, the King of Connacht, Ruaidri na bhFeadh Ó Conchobair, seized the opportunity to attack the Anglo-Norman lands, and launched an assault on Athlone, burning the town and attacking the castle. The castle changed hands between the English and Irish many times during the 14th and 15th centuries, until it was finally recaptured by the English in 1537, as it is recorded in the Carew Manuscripts that the:

‘Castle of Athlone, standing upon a passage betwixt Connaught and these parts, is recovered, which has long been usurped by the Irish’.

Athlone and the Presidency of Connacht

The castle was repaired and became the residence of the Presidents of Connacht after 1569. However, the region was still not pacified. Shortly afterwards, in 1573, an army of Scottish warriors, gunners and mercenary soldiers, led by the rebel James FitzMaurice FitzGerald, burned the town on the eastern bank of the Shannon. At the end of the 16th century, Athlone was threatened once again. This time by the forces of Hugh O’Neill during the bloody Nine Years’ War. O’Neills army burned and destroyed many farms throughout the region. They approached Athlone with a strong force of 1,500 men, however they found that the people of Athlone remained loyal to the English authorities, and so, without any support, the rebels withdrew. Despite the unsettled times, the early 17th century was a time of growth and development for Athlone, and an active merchant class thrived. The town became a borough corporation, that was entitled to return two representatives to the Irish parliament. Town-wall fortifications and gatehouses were built to protect the town, and those defences would soon be put to the test.

Athlone in the turbulent mid-17th century – 1641 Confederacy Rebellion, the Cromwellian Campaigns and the Restoration

Athlone was embroiled in the dark days of the 1641 Confederacy Rebellion. The castle was held by a garrison who found itself surrounded and cut off by rebel forces, who were attempting to starve them into surrender. The soldiers and their families were saved by a temporary truce, that allowed a relief force to escort most of the garrison and Protestant inhabitants of Athlone back to the safety of Dublin. However, by a cunning ruse, the Irish Confederate forces gained control of Athlone Castle by exploiting the conflicting and confused loyalties of the remaining garrison.

The unrest in Ireland coincided with the English Civil War and the rise of Oliver Cromwell. After his victory in England, Cromwell brought the veteran troops of his New Model army to Ireland, where his short brutal campaign smashed resistance. Cromwell’s forces captured a succession of Irish towns, including Athlone. By 1653 all resistance had ended and Ireland was in Cromwell’s iron grip. 

Those who had supported or enabled the Confederacy had their lands confiscated. Many Catholic landowners were moved across the Shannon to poorer and smaller estates in the west of Ireland, giving rise to the phrase ‘to Hell or to Connacht’. Athlone was the administrative centre for this enforced re-settlement of catholic landowners. By the 1670’s Athlone’s importance waned, following the abolition of the Connacht Presidency. The castle and much of the town was granted to the Earl of Ranelagh, a key financier of the flamboyant King Charles II who had been restored to his throne following the death of Cromwell.

However Athlone’s darkest days were on the horizon. As we will discuss further below the gallery.

Visiting Athlone Castle – Information