ATHLONE, a borough, market and post-town

From A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837

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 ATHLONE, county of ROSCOMMON, and province of CONNAUGHT, 12 miles (N. E. by E.) from Ballinasloe, 15 ¼ (S.E.by S.) from Roscommon, and 59 ½ (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 Henry 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.

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