ATHLONE, a borough, market and post-town, and an important military station, partly in the barony of BRAWNEY, county of WESTMEATH, and province of LEINSTER, and partly in the barony of ATHL0NE, county of ROSCOMMON, and province of CONNAUGHT, 12 miles (N. E. by E.) from Ballinasloe, 15- (S. E .by S.) from Roscommon, and 59- (W.) from Dublin; containing 11,406 inhabitants. This place derives its name from the words Ath Luain, signifying in the Irish language "the ford of the moon," of which, previously to the introduction of Christianity, the ancient inhabitants were worshippers; or, according to some, from Ath-Luan, in reference to the rapids at the bridge over the Shannon. After the erection of a town at this ford it obtained the name of Bail-ath-Luain, or "the town of the ford of the moon," by which, now contracted into Blahluin, it is generally called by the Irish inhabitants of the neighbourhood.
The town is situated on the river Shannon, by which it is divided into two parts, and on the great. western road from Dublin to Galway through Ballinasloe. An abbey for Cistertian monks, dedicated to St. Peter, was founded, according to Ware, in 1216, on the western or Connaught side of the Shannon, to which in that year King John gave certain lands in exchange for the site on which was erected the Castle of Athlone, besides one-tenth part of the expenses of the castle, which afterwards become one of the principal military stations in the country. The castle was progressively increased in strength, and so important was it regarded by the English monarchs, that when Hen. III. granted The dominion of Ireland to his son Prince Edward, this town was expressly reserved with other principal cities and when the same monarch granted the whole of Connaught to Richard de Burgo, he retained for himself five cantreds contiguous to the castle. In this reign another monastery was founded on the eastern side of the Shannon, by Cathal Croibh-Dearg O'Connor, Prince of Connaught, and completed by Sir Henry Dillon, who was interred in it in 1244. In the reign of Elizabeth this place was greatly improved, the fortifications were strengthened, and the castle was for some time occupied by the Earl of Essex. The castle became the seat of the presidency of Connaught, and when the insurrection broke out in 1641, it was occupied by Viscount Ranelagh, then lord-president, with the usual ward of a royal castle. Independently of its several defences, the town was strong in itself, being built of stone; and the inhabitants having given assurances of their determination to defend it against all enemies, the president entrusted it entirely to their custody; but in a few weeks they secretly formed a design of enabling the insurgents to seize the president and his family, and to surprise the castle. For this purpose they admitted Sir James Dillon's forces within the walls on the night of Saturday, in the hope of surprising Lord Ranelagh on his way to church in the English town on the following day; but by some mistake in the appointed signal the design miscarried. The Irish forces laid close siege to the castle for twenty-two weeks, when it was relieved by some troops sent from Dublin by the Duke of Ormonde, who strengthened the garrison; but with this reinforcement the president effected nothing more than an unimportant defeat of the Connaught men near Ballintobber. During the president's absence on this expedition, the insurgents of Westmeath under Sir James Dillon attacked the English town in such numbers that the garrison were compelled to abandon the walls, but they defended the houses till Captain St. George, making a sally from the castle, compelled the assailants to withdraw. By occupying the pass of Ballykeran, however, Dillon's forces cut off all communication with the metropolis, and reduced the town to a state of extreme distress for want of supplies, which an entire troop had to cut its way through his forces to Dublin to solicit. At length, all hope of assistance being extinct, the president negotiated with the enemy for a safe conduct for his wife and family to Trim, which was honourably granted; and so forcibly did Lady Ranelagh, at Dublin, urge the necessities of the deserted English in this town, that a convoy was sent to bring the inhabitants away. This convoy, which consisted of 1100 foot and a few horse, summoned from the garrisons around Dublin, under the command of Sir Richard Grenville, arrived at Athlone in the latter part of February, 1642, and found the English there so much reduced in numbers as scarcely to muster more than 450 men, and many of these so wasted by famine and disease as to be unable to march. They fought their way home through the pass of Rochonell, and the custody of the castle was assumed by Viscount Dillon of Costelloe.
After the victories obtained by Cromwell, the castle was taken on a second attack by Sir Charles Coote for the parliament; and during the fury of the war the town was burned; though restored, it never recovered its former strength or appearance; and in the reign of Charles II. the eastern portion of it was destroyed by an accidental fire. During the war of the Revolution, the town was held for James II. by Col. Richard Grace, an experienced officer, and a garrison, consisting of three regiments of foot, with nine troops of dragoons and two troops of horse in and around it. Immediately after the battle of the Boyne, Lieutenant-General Douglas was sent by William III. to assault the town. Colonel Grace, doubtful of his ability to defend the whole, burnt the eastern portion of it, and breaking down some of the arches of the bridge, fortified himself in the other part; and Douglas, after battering the castle for eight days without success, withdrew his forces in the middle of the night. Towards the midsummer of 1691, the main body of William's army was led to the assault by De Ginkell, who first made himself master of the eastern portion of the town, of which, after the retreat of Douglas, the Irish had taken possession, and had fortified it with additional works. From the 20th till the 30th of June, a destructive cannonade was kept up across the river by both parties from batteries successively erected; during this period, after expending 12,000 cannon balls, many tons of stone shot, 600 shells, and more than 50 tons of powder, De Ginkell destroyed not only the castle but every house on the Roscommon side of the river. New works, however, were constantly thrown up by the garrison, assisted by the Irish army under St. Ruth, which had encamped at a short distance for the especial defence of the bridge, the passage of which was perseveringly contested with frequent destructive losses to William's army. On the last day of the siege a council of war was held, when it was resolved to storm the town, and the ringing of the bell of St. Mary's church was appointed as a signal for crossing the river. This was accordingly effected the same evening by the army in three divisions, and such was the simultaneous velocity of their movements, that after half an hour's sanguinary conflict the assailants became masters of the town, which was immediately evacuated by the garrison. A detachment, which had been sent by St. Ruth to oppose them, was repulsed by the victorious army, who turned the guns of the garrison against them; and St. Ruth, on their taking possession of the place, decamped with his forces to Aughrim, fifteen miles distant.
During this siege the loss of the defenders amounted to 1200; and their brave commander, Col. Grace, who had been chamberlain to James II., while Duke of York, and one of his most faithful adherents, was killed in the action. The English, on taking possession of the town, immediately directed their attention to its restoration and to the repair of its fortifications and works; and it soon became one of the principal military depots for arms, stores, and ammunition. On the 27th of October, 1697, the castle was, during one of the severest storms ever known here, struck by the electric fluid, which set fire to the magazine, in which were 260 barrels of gunpowder, 10,000 hand grenades charged, and a great quantity of match and other combustible stores, the whole of which exploded with so violent a concussion that all the houses in the town, except a few cottages without the gates, were shattered or destroyed the loss of life, however, was comparatively small, only 7 persons being killed and 36 wounded.
The town, though at present the largest on the Shannon next to Limerick, still retains much of its character as a military station. On the Leinster side, one of the principal entrances near the river is through a gateway in one of the old square towers ; and the ancient walls, though in a great measure concealed by buildings, extend for a considerable distance in that direction. On the Connaught side there are scarcely any traces of the walls or gates; but in this quarter are situated all the present military defences of the place. These consist principally of the castle, which forms a tete du pont, and of advanced forts and redoubts on the outside of the town to defend the main approaches along the great road from Galway by Ballinasloe, the most important line of communication with that part of the country which is most exposed to invasion. A short canal on this side of the river enables boats navigating the Shannon to avoid the rapids at the bridge of Athlone, and adds materially to the strength of the works: it is crossed by three bridges, one of which is falling into decay, and of which two are defended by palisades, those of the third having been taken down to facilitate the passing of the mail coaches. The bogs along the river are a sufficient protection to the town on the south side. The oldest of the works is a tower of decagonal form, which, from the massive structure of the walls, was probably the keep of the ancient castle, though having a new exterior; it is situated on a lofty mound supported on the side next the river by a stupendous wall, but overlooked on the opposite side by the houses in the upper part of the town. The platform on which this tower, now used as a barrack, is situated, is bounded on the side next the lower town by dwellings for the officers, and walls of imposing appearance; and on the others by modern works mounted with cannon, commanding not only the approach on the Connaught side of the river but also the bridge itself; and the strong circular towers at irregular intervals, with the carefully fortified entrance, give to the whole place a very formidable appearance. To the north of the castle are the barracks, calculated for the accommodation of 267 artillery, 592 infantry, and 187 horses; a pontoon establishment is also attached, and there are two magazines, an extensive ordnance depot, and an hospital. The buildings occupy an elevated situation on the banks of the river, and comprise an area of about 15 statute acres, including spacious squares for exercise; besides the barracks for the men, there are within the enclosure detached houses for the officers of the different departments, store-houses, and an armoury. The armoury, a detached building, usually contains 15,000 stand of arms, including the muskets of eight regiments of militia of the central counties; and the hospital is situated on the high ground a short distance from the river, and is calculated for the reception of 96 patients. This place is the headquarters of the western district, and the residence of the major-general and staff of the district. The town is divided into two nearly equal portions by the river Shannon, over which is a bridge erected in the reign of Elizabeth, which, though 100 yards in length, is only twelve feet wide; the passage, therefore, is often attended with difficulty, and on market-days and at the fairs with danger; it is further obstructed by the traffick of three flour-mills, one at each end and the other on the bridge; the narrowness of the arches, which are ten in number, and the width of the piers between them, prevent the free course of the water, and in time of floods cause an inundation on the shores of Lough Ree. On the south side are various sculptured tablets inserted in a wall, about nine feet broad, rising above the parapet and surmounted by a pediment ornamented with mouldings; their various inscriptions afford a curious history of its erection. It is in contemplation to build a new bridge by a loan from Government, which, on the recommendation of the Shannon Navigation Committee, it is expected, will be granted for the improvement of that river from Lough Allen to Limerick. The total number of houses within the limits of the town is 1027, of which 546 are slated and the remainder thatched; they are built chiefly of limestone, though bricks of excellent quality are made in great quantities a little below the town. A regatta is annually held on Lough Ree in August, and continues for four days; and races take place occasionally at Ballykeran. About a mile and a half from Athlone, on the Leinster side of the Shannon, is Moydrum Castle, the handsome residence of Viscount Castlemaine, a solid castellated mansion with square turrets at each angle, beautifully situated on the edge of a small lake, and surrounded by an extensive and richly wooded demesne. The other gentlemen's seats near the town, and also on the same side of the river, are the Cottage, the seat of W. Cooke, Esq.; the Retreat, of F. E. Moony, Esq.; the moorings, of Capt. James Caulfield, R. N ; Spring Park, of P. Cusack, Esq.; Lissevolan, of H. Malone, Esq.; Auburn, of W. F. Bruce, Esq.; Bonahenley, of S. Longworth, Esq.; and Creggan Castle, the property of F. Longworth, Esq. On the Connaught side are Shamrock Lodge, the seat of J. Robinson, Esq.; and Handsfield, of A. Robinson, Esq. At Burnbrook are some corn-mills with a good residence, belonging to E. Burne, Esq.
The manufacture of felt hats was formerly carried on here to a great extent, but only a few are now made for the supply of the immediate neighbourhood. There are two extensive distilleries, each producing from 40,000 to 50,000 gallons of whiskey annually; two tanneries, two soap and candle manufactories, two public breweries on a large scale, and several corn-mills. The amount of excise duties collected within the district, in 1835, was £37,927. 3. 10. A communication by steam-boat between this place and Limerick has been lately established, and passage boats meet the steamers at Shannon harbour and proceed to Dublin by the grand canal. The market is held on Tuesday and Saturday, of which the latter is the principal, when sheep, swine, and great quantities of grain are exposed for sale: it is held in an open space under the wall supporting the castle mound, but the principal meat market is at the shambles near the river, and is abundantly supplied with provisions of all kinds; fish is procured in the lake and the river Shannon, and saltwater fish is brought from Galway. The fairs, to which is attached a court of pie poudre, are on the Monday after Epiphany, March 10th, Holy Thursday, and Aug. 24th, each by the charters ordained to last three days. A branch of the Provincial Bank of Ireland has been established here for the last eight years; and there is a constabulary police station.
The town was incorporated by charter dated Dec. 16th, 4th of Jas. I. (1606), which was seized by Jas. II. on a judgment of forfeiture obtained in the court of exchequer, and a new charter was granted in the 3rd of that monarch's reign; but the judgment being subsequently declared void, the former has since been and still is the governing charter, and the latter has not been acted upon since the accession of Wm. III. Other charters confirming and extending the privileges of the corporation were granted on the 16th of Jas. I. and 17th of Chas. II.; and the "New Rules" made by the lord-lieutenant and privy council, in the 25th of Chas. II., provided that the appointment of the sovereign, recorder, and town-clerk should be subject to their approval. The style of the corporation is "The Sovereign, Bailiffs, Burgesses, and Freemen of the Town of Athlone ;" and the officers are a sovereign, two bailiffs, thirteen burgesses (including the constable of the castle, Viscount Castlemaine), a recorder, town-clerk, serjeant-at-mace, and billet-master; and there is a select body called the common council. The sovereign is elected by the common council from among the burgesses, annually on the 29th of June, and has the privilege of appointing a vice-sovereign with the approbation of the bailiffs and a majority of the burgesses; the bailiffs are elected from the freemen by the common council, on the same day as the sovereign, and are ex officio members of the council the burgesses are elected for life from among the freemen, and the freemen also for life, by the common council, of which body, according to the practice of the corporation, twelve must be present to constitute an election; the recorder and town-clerk (who is also deputy-recorder) are appointed by the common council ; and the serjeant-at-mace and billet-master, of whom the former acts as constable in the borough, are appointed by the sovereign. The common council are unlimited in number, but usually consist of not more than twenty persons, including the sovereign and vice-sovereign and two bailiffs ; they hold their office for life, and vacancies are filled up by themselves from among the burgesses and freemen. The borough sent two representatives to the Irish parliament prior to the Union, since which period it has sent one to the imperial parliament. The right of election was formerly vested in the burgesses and freemen, amounting, in April 1831, to 71; but by the act of the 2nd of Wm. IV., cap. 88, the non-resident freemen, except within seven miles, have been disfranchised, and the privilege has been extended to the £10 householders. The limits of the borough comprehend under the charter a circle of a mile and a half radius from the centre of the bridge, but, as regards electoral purposes, were diminished by the late enactments and now include only the town and a very small surrounding district, comprising 485 statute acres; they are minutely described in the Appendix. The number of voters registered at the last general election amounted to 274, of whom 179 polled: the sovereign is the returning officer. The sovereign or vice-sovereign and the recorder are justices of the peace within the borough, having exclusive jurisdiction under the charter; the sovereign is also coroner, escheator, and clerk of the market. The civil court of the borough, which has jurisdiction in pleas not exceeding £5 late currency, was held under the sovereign every third Thursday, but has been discontinued for more than fourteen years. The sovereign, or his deputy, sits thrice a week to hear complaints on matters arising within the borough. Quarter sessions for the Athlone division of the county of Roscommon are held here in March and October, and at Roscommon in June and December. The portion of the borough on the Westmeath side of the river is in the Moat division of that county, where the quarter sessions are held regularly four times a year. Petty sessions for the adjacent rural districts are held within the limits of the borough on both sides of the river, on alternate Saturdays, at which the county magistrates respectively preside. By letters patent in the 27th of Chas. II. the half-quarter of land of Athlone, otherwise Beallagh, with the manor, castle, &c., was granted to Richard, Lord Ranelagh, with power to hold courts leet and baron, which courts are not now held; but the seneschal of the manor of Twyford, who holds his courts at Moat, claims jurisdiction over that part of the borough which is in the county of Westmeath. The court-house, or Tholsel, was built in 1703: it was partly occupied as a guard-room, and partly for holding the sovereign's court, but has been taken down. There is a borough prison, to which, from its unfitness, offenders are only committed for a few hours prior to their removal; and within the corporation district is a prison belonging to the county of Roscommon, to which the sovereign commits offenders.
The town comprises the parishes of St. Peter and St. Mary, the former in the western and the latter in the eastern portion. The living of St. Peter's is a perpetual curacy, in the diocese of Elphin, and in the patronage of the Bishop. The church, which is situated on the site of the ancient monastery of St. Peter, was built in 1804, by aid of a gift of £500, and a loan of £300, from the late Board of First Fruits, and has been recently repaired by a grant of £344 from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The glebe-house was built at the same time by a loan of £312 and a gift of £100 from the same Board; the glebe comprises six acres, in three lots near the church. The living of St. Mary's is a rectory and vicarage, in the diocese of Meath, and in the patronage of the Bishop; the tithes amount to £304.12. 3-. The rectory was granted by Chas. I., in 1636, to Richard Linguard, together with a portion of the tithes of the parish of Ratoath, in the county of Meath, for the augmentation of the vicarage, which was then stated to be worth only £40 per annum; these tithes now amount to £100. The church was rebuilt in 1826, by a grant of £2300 from the late Board of First Fruits: it is a neat edifice, with a square embattled tower; the tower of the old church is still standing, and contains the bell which gave the signal for William's army to cross the river at the siege of Athlone. The glebe-house was built in 1812, by a gift of £100 and a loan of £500 from the late Board of First Fruits, and has been lately enlarged and beautified, the incumbent having received permission from the bishop to expend £600 upon it, to be repaid to him or his heirs; the glebe comprises eight acres. In the R. C. divisions the parish of St. Peter is united with that of Drum, and contains three chapels, besides a small religious house of the Augustinian order, now falling into decay; and the R. C. parish of St. Mary is co-extensive with that of the Established Church, but in the diocese of Ardagh, and contains a spacious chapel, erected in 1794, and also a chapel attached to a religious house of the Franciscan order, rebuilt in 1825. There are places of worship for Baptists and Wesleyan and Primitive Methodists.
"The Ranelagh school" was founded pursuant to a grant, in 1708, by Richard, Lord Ranelagh, of the castle, manor, town, and lands of Athlone, with the customs, &c., belonging thereto, together with the lands of Clonarke, stated to contain 427 acres, and of Gortnanghan or Gortecorson, containing 43 acres, in trust for the erection, contingent on the death of his daughter,
Lady Catherine Jones, without issue, of two schools at Athlone for 20 boys and 20 girls, and two at Roscommon, with chapels attached; and also for the payment of £20 per annum to the minister of Athlone. Lady Jones dying without issue in 1740, the estates were, about 20 years after, vested by act in the Incorporated Society for promoting charter schools; and a school for the maintenance, instruction, clothing, and apprenticing of boys was founded in the parish of St. Peter. The number of boys was limited to 40, with each of whom, on being apprenticed, a premium of £10 was paid; but from a considerable diminution of the income the school has been for some years declining, and there are now not more than 15 boys, with whom only £7 is paid as an apprentice fee. In the same parish also are a school for boys, another for girls, and a Sunday school. St. Mary's has also a parochial school for boys and girls, and a Sunday school. The abbey school, for the sons of Roman Catholics, is aided by subscriptions; and there is a school for boys and girls aided by a grant of £10 and a premium of £2 per ann. from the Baptist Society. The number of children on the books of these schools, excepting the Sunday schools, is 371, of whom 218 are boys and 153 girls; and in the different private pay schools about 550 children are taught. There is a dispensary in the parish of St. Peter, and another in that of St. Mary. Robert Sherwood bequeathed the interest of £50 to the poor; and William Handcock, Esq., ancestor of Lord Castlemaine, by deed in 1705, gave lands now producing a rental of £46. 2. 3. per annum, to be distributed by his representatives among the poor of both parishes on the recommendation of the ministers and churchwardens; he also bequeathed £20 per annum for the support of a schoolmaster, who must have taken the degree of A. B. The sum of £8 late currency, called the Dodwell grant, is annually distributed among a number of poor women; and £13 per annum, paid by a Mr. Evans, of Dublin, to the rector, is divided among old men. At Courson, about a mile from Athlone, in the parish of St. Mary, are some small vestiges of an ancient castle formerly belonging to the O'Briens; on opening the ground near the ruins, a gold chain was found some years since. At Cloonakilla, in the parish of St. Peter, are the remains of an old chapel; and at Cloonow, on the banks of the Shannon, about three miles below the town, is a more considerable ruin with a cemetery attached. There are numerous chalybeate springs in the neighbourhood. Athlone gave the title of Viscount to the Earl of Ranelagh, and at present gives that of Earl to the family of De Ginkell.