ATHLONE, description of

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 tête 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 head-quarters 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. 5 the moorings, of Capt. James Caulfield, R. N; Spring Park, of P. Cusack, Esq.; Lissevolan, of H. Malone, Esq.; Auburn, of W. F. Brace, 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 salt-water 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 James I. (1606), which was seized by James 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 William III. Other charters confirming and extending the privileges of the corporation were granted on the 16th of James I. and 17th of Charles II.; and the "New Rules " made by the lord-lieutenant and privy council, in the 25th of Charles 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 free men, 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 William 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 Charles 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 ½.

The rectory was granted by Charles 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.

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