Athlone is the largest town on the Shannon and is located in the centre of Ireland. Interestingly the town gets its name from ancient Irish myth when the rulers of the provenances would fight their bulls against each other for dominance over the vital resources of the country, such as access to crossing the Shannon. In one such battle, the brown bull of the Ulster (north) defeated the white bull of Connacht (West). The defeated bull was then carved up and scattered throughout Ireland. Its loins were kept in Athlone and the Irish name for Athlone or ‘ Áth Luain’ means ‘Ford of the Loins’.
Athlone is now the commercial hub of the Midlands and is rich Irish culture and history, evidence of this can be easily seen when wandering through its narrow medieval streets. Also apparent is the abundance of shops, theatres and restaurants as well as a plentiful supply of attractions and activities to enjoy. Athlone is one of the towns that many Shannon cruisers use as a base to explore from and it has a large marina to facilitate this.
Athlone Castle dominates the waterfront as you enter the town. It was constructed from an earlier Anglo-Norman structure in 1210 by Justicar John Gray for King John of England. The castle has been upgraded during its violent history over the past eight hundred years to become the imposing fortress that it is today. The newly renovated castle is one of the Shannon’s most recognizable attractions, it is open to the public and a visit is highly recommended.
Athlone had long been known as a British garrison town, and up until the 20th century it had gained the reputation of being a fortress. Major battles have occurred here in almost every war and invasion that has happened in Ireland and thus the town’s defences have been constantly developing during the past several hundred years. It is a walled town and its first walls were built in 1251. Northgate Street and Dublingate Street show where the entry points may have been and evidence of the walls can be seen in these locations.
The western side or the river or the left bank as it is know to the locals is very distinctive from the east side. It is less developed commercially however it steeped in history and there are a few really nice café’s to visit selling organic home made food. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Athlone is home to Europe’s oldest bar. Sean’s bar is located near Athlone Castle and dates back to 900AD. During renovations in 1970 the walls of the structure were found to be made of wattle and wicker and some thousand-year-old coins were also found. The coins are on display within the bar and apparently the stout is good here too!
Just up the hill from Sean’s bar there is a little craft shop “The Bastion Gallery” where Michael Jackson and his family spent two hours browsing one evening in 2006. It stocks jewellery designed and hand-crafted in Ireland including locally made Ogham Treasure, inspired by ancient Ogham the first written form of Gaelic. (Keep an eye out for the Ogham inscriptions at Clonmacnoise ) ”
The town has a bustling nightlife with a healthy range of restaurants, pubs and clubs. Just over the bridge and down Church street you will find the multi awarding winning Fatted Calf, which is run by husband and wife duo Feargal and Fiona. The restaurant is well know throughout Ireland and is visit here is certainly a memorable experience.
The local theatres host a variety of performances during the summer and information on these shows can be obtained from the local tourist office which is located in the town square next to the shopping centre. Attractions within the town’s environs include Glendeer Pet Farm, Mike’s Viking Tours, children’s leisure worlds and a water sports centre. There are also a number of health and spa facilities in the local hotels if you’re in the mood to treat yourself!