Athlone is a town in County Westmeath, almost dead-centre of Ireland and bisected by the River Shannon. That has made it strategically important for over 1000 years, with the castle its main heritage. It's grown on both river banks into a large industrial town and transport hub, with a population in 2016 of 21,349.
Inland travel in ancient Ireland was impeded by bogs, but you could travel north-south along the Shannon, and east-west along the eskers, the line of gravel ridges deposited by glaciers. The main east-west route was some 20 km further south, crossing the Shannon at Clonmacnoise, which grew into a great monastic centre. Probably because that area was flood-prone, the Normans when they arrived in the 12th century preferred to cross the Shannon here at Luan's ford (Baile Átha Luain, hence "Athlone"). They built a bridge, and a fortified town and castle on the west bank. Later rulers continued to see the need for a garrison, as any coup or revolt here would strike at the very heart of Ireland.
The river formed the boundary between the Gaelic kingdoms of Connacht to the west and of Meath to the east. But half the fun of being Norman was in subduing the Gaels, and carving up their territory into shires or counties which could be re-awarded to loyal henchmen. Meath was subsumed into the kingdom of Leinster and eventually its western part was hived off as County Westmeath. The west bank became County Roscommon, but the boundary was re-drawn so that all of Athlone fell within Westmeath.
The west bank retains its higgledy-piggledy medieval street pattern but most buildings of that era were smashed in the two sieges of 1690/91, when after the Battle of the Boyne the Jacobites made a stand against the oncoming Williamites. The town was re-built in the 18th / 19th century, the railway arrived, and Athlone's central location made it an attractive base for state agencies, industry (healthcare and IT nowadays being leading employers) and the army. The castle was rebuilt, since you never just knew where Napoleon might attack next, and now contains the TIC, open Tu-Sa 09:00-17:00.
Athlone is about 90 minutes' drive from Dublin (DUB IATA), Shannon (SNN IATA) or Knock Airport (NOC IATA). Dublin is generally the best choice because of its wide range of flights and good onward transport. Two bus lines compete on the route from Dublin airport and city centre to Athlone and Galway, see below.
Trains from Dublin Heuston run hourly and take 1 hr 20 min to Athlone via Portarlington, Tullamore and Clara. From Athlone they either continue west via Athenry to Galway, or northwest to Roscommon, Castlebar and Westport, with connections to Ballina. A walk-up single from Dublin is €15, see Irish Rail for timetables, fares and online tickets.
1 Athlone railway station is 500 m north of town centre. The ticket office is open M-F 15 min before trains, and there are ticket machines and toilets.
City Link competes on the route from the airport. Their Bus 763 runs every couple of hours daily via Dublin Aston Quay and Heuston station, Lucan, Enfield, Kinnegad, Kilbeggan and Moate to Athlone, where the stop is outside B&Q. It continues west to Ballinasloe, Aughrim, Loughrea and Galway.
Bus 70 runs twice M-Sa from Mullingar via Kilbeggan and Moate to Athlone.
From Dublin follow N4 / M4, which becomes M6 at Kinnegad, and takes 90 min to Athlone. It continues west to Galway, another hour.
The centre of Athlone is small enough to get around on foot. There are taxi ranks at the train station and on Church St.
Bus Éireann A1 and A2 run across town from Monksland in the west via the bus and railway station, town centre, Golden Island Shopping Centre and Athlone Institute of Technology, to Creggan Court in the east. They run every 15 min M-Sa and every 30 min on Sundays and public holidays. They follow the same route, except the A1 goes via Retreat Road and A2 via Ballymahon Rd. Cash fare as of June 2021 is €2 adult and €1.20 child; by TFI Leap Card it's €1.40 adult and 84c child.
Flagline Bus Ath1 plies between Golden Island Shopping Centre and Athlone Institute of Technology, every 15 min M-Sa for €1 single cash fare.
Route maps, including stop locations, are shown on the TFI route mapper.
- 1 Athlone Castle, Castle St N37 A6D7, ☏ , email@example.com. W-Sa (plus Tu Jul-Aug) 10:00-17:30, Su 11:00-17:30. This was built for England's King John in 1210, replacing a wooden fort, and extended circa 1276. It probably initially had a moat. Its heaviest engagements were the two 17th century sieges of Athlone. In 1690 Athlone city and castle were held by the Jacobites, who destroyed the Shannon bridge to thwart the advance of the Williamites. Fresh from victory at the Battle of the Boyne, the Williamites bombarded the city for a week but retreated when Jacobite reinforcements approached. They attacked again in 1691, attempting to storm the river crossing, and bombarding the Jacobites on the west bank for ten days. Then, with the river running unusually low, the Williamites found another fording point downstream, got across and captured the castle. Two weeks later, advancing west, they met the main Jacobite army at Aughrim, crushed them, and thereby annihilated Jacobite resistance in Ireland. The smashed-up castle was rebuilt during the Napoleonic wars but never put to the test, so much of what you see now is early 19th century. The TIC is also here. Adult €9, conc €6.50, child €4.50.
- 2 Church of St Peter & Paul, Barrack St. This twin towered RC church was built in the 1930s to replace an older, smaller church on the site. It has impressive stained glass windows by the Harry Clarke workshop. It's simply the parish church but is emblematic of the city of Athlone.
- Other churches worth a look are the Methodist church on Northgate, the C of I Athlone St Mary on Dublin Gate St, St Anthony's in the Franciscan Friary just south, St Mary's further east, and Corpus Christi west side in Connaught Gardens.
- Other city architecture is grouped along Church St, Northgate St (where you can only peek into Court Devenish House and the abbey ruin) and Pearse St.
- Railway architecture: the line to Galway sweeps across the Shannon north side of town on a fine bridge built 1851. On the west bank is the original railway station, a wide classical stone building, nowadays offices.
- Luan Gallery, Elliot Rd N37 TH22 (next to St Peter & Paul), ☏ . Tu-Sa 11:00-17:00, Su 12:00-17:00. Low-rise gallery with modern wing joining a 19th century former library. They show contemporary work. Free.
- John McCormack (1884-1945) of Athlone was a renowned tenor, singing opera, lieder and light pieces - in 1914 he was the first to record It's a Long Way to Tipperary. Among numerous accolades, he was made Count of the Papal Court in 1928 by Pope Pius XI. He's commemorated by a bust outside the Luan Gallery (which Google street view has pixillated to ensure his privacy) and since 2014 by a full-sized statue outside Civic Hall, his feet wound in coils of music that would ensnare a lesser man. He's buried in Deans Grange, Dublin.
- Athlone Canal west side of town has been culverted and turned into a park. The shallows and rapids on the Shannon made it possible to ford but were a block to navigation. This short canal was cut in 1757 as a work-around; it served until the 1840s when the main Shannon was made navigable by a weir and locks.
- 3 Coosan Point is the headland where Lough Ree narrows into the Shannon flowing down through Athlone. With Killinure Point just north, it encloses three "inner lakes" - these sheltered waters are the main local base for water activities.
- What's on? For events read Westmeath Independent or listen to ACR on 88.4 FM.
- Theatres: Dean Crowe Theatre is on Chapel St a block west of the castle, Athlone Little Theatre is east side on St Mary's Place, and Tonnta Street Theatre is northeast on Grace Park Rd.
- IMC Cinema is in Golden Island Shopping Centre.
- Golf: Athlone GC is west shore of the lake at Hodson Bay. Mount Temple Golf and Country Club is 8 km east of town at Aghanasmore.
- River cruises start from the west bank quay by the bridge, heading upstream to Lough Ree and downstream to Clonmacnoise. Operators include The River Run, Viking Tours and Shannon Princess.
- Football: Athlone Town AFC play soccer in the League of Ireland First Division, the Republic's second tier. The stadium (capacity 5000) is in Lissywollen 1 km northeast of town centre. The playing season is March-Nov and matches are usually Friday evening.
- Water sports on Lough Ree: Coosan Point 3 km north of town is the closest spot.
- Greenway: the railway from Dublin to Galway originally ran via Mullingar, then west to Athlone along a branch that was abandoned and turned into a hiking and cycling trail. The trail starts northeast of the railway station along Ballymahon Rd and is 12 km to Moate, then 16 km to Castletown, then 11 km into Mullingar. It's a firm paved surface.
- Drama Festival is in early May. Dates for 2022 are TBA.
- Dublin Gate St east of the bridge is the main retail strip, with independents such as Burgess department stores, and Allen's a good option for giftware.
- Athlone Town Centre is the 2-storey shopping centre east end of Dublin Gate St, at the corner with Gleeson St. This has M&S and other national chains.
- Golden Island is the main retail park 500 m southeast of the centre. It has Tesco, Argos, Lifestyle Sports, and the cinema.
- Arcadia is another retail park north side at junction 11 of N6.
- Left Bank Bistro, Fry Place N37 AX05 (south side of castle), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Tu-Sa 12:00-21:30. Chic modern bistro with wide menu selection.
- Kin Khao Thai, 1 Abbey Lane N37 FF29 (one block south of castle), ☏ , email@example.com. W Th 17:00-21:00, F Sa 16:00-22:00, Su 16:00-21:00. Thai cuisine, gets mostly great reviews, in a turmeric-hued building. They have another branch in Maynooth.
- Di Bella, High St (south side of castle), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. M-Th 16:00-21:00, F Sa 13:00-22:00, Su 13:00-21:00. Reliable Italian restaurant. They have another branch in Lucan.
- Al Mezza, 6 Bastion St N37 KX23, ☏ . W-M 17:00-21:00. Lebanese food: meze, shwarma and the usual favourites.
- 1810 Steakhouse, Pearse St N37 N444, ☏ . Th-Su 17:00-21:30. Steaks, seafood and tapas.
- Thyme Restaurant, 2 Bridge St N37 F1W4, ☏ , email@example.com. M-Sa 17:00-22:00, Su 13:00-20:00. Restaurant east side of the river bridge, gets great reviews for modern Irish cuisine.
- Fatted Calf, Church St N37 P383 (by shopping centre), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. W-F 17:00-21:00, Sa 12:30-15:00, 17:00-21:00, Su 14:00-20:00. Good dining in town centre.
- Sean's Bar, 13 Main St N37 DW36, ☏ . Daily 10:30-00:30. Lively friendly bar next to the castle. It's believed to be the oldest pub in Ireland, and possibly in the solar system. Around 900 AD Luain Mac Luighdeach guided people across the Shannon ford - and in spate you might be stuck for many days before it was safe to cross, so he had a pub with lodgings. Wattle-and-daub walls and old coins confirmed the dating. The runner up is Dublin's "Brazen Head" from 1198.
- Castle Inn, 1 Main St N37 X9E8, ☏ . This remains closed in 2021.
- Dublin Gate St east of the river has Gertie Browne, Pedlar Mac's, Malt House, Piano Bar, Carey's Tavern, Murphy's Law, Flannery's, and Dark Horse.
- Lough Ree Inn, Coosan Point N37 EA49, ☏ . F-Su 13:00-18:00. Scenic spot for drinks and a meal at the meeting of Lough Ree with the "inner lakes".
- 1 Creggan Court Hotel, Dublin Rd N37 YW25 (on N62 east edge of town), ☏ , email@example.com. Decent budget place, dog-friendly. B&B double €60.
- 2 Shamrock Lodge Hotel, Clonown Rd N37 CK73 (west edge of town), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Small friendly B&B, very clean. B&B double €70.
- 3 Arch House B&B, Sean Costello St N37 H348, ☏ , email@example.com. Simple but clean and roomy B&B and self-catering apartments. B&B double €70.
- Bastion B&B, 4 Bastion St N37 R8E2, ☏ . Charming small B&B a block west of the castle. Double (room only) €70.
- 4 The Prince of Wales, Church St N37 T2P0, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Slick comfy hotel in the centre of Athlone. B&B double €80.
- 5 Sheraton Athlone Hotel, Gleeson St N37 D953, ☏ . Well-run mid-range hotel in town centre, now part of Marriott chain. Has fitness centre and spa. B&B double €90.
- 6 Athlone Springs Hotel, Tuam Rd N37 F9T3 (on R362 three km west of town), ☏ , email@example.com. Clean modern place handy for motorists by M6 junction 13. With fitness centre and pool. B&B double €90.
- 7 Radisson Blu Hotel, Northgate St N37 A8X9, ☏ . Good central chain hotel on east riverbank, with conference facilities and fitness centre. B&B double €110.
- 8 Coosan Cottage Eco Hotel, Coosan Point Rd N37 CK73 (3 km north of town), ☏ . Eco B&B, charmingly sustainable. B&B double €90, cash only.
- 9 Shelmalier House, Retreat Rd, Cartrontroy N37 Y1X9, ☏ . Welcoming B&B at east edge of town.
- 10 Mill Bar, Tuam Rd, Bealnamulla N37 V8N5 (3 km west on R362), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Most visitors come for its Cornloft Restaurant, but it has comfy en suite rooms, handy for motorists. B&B double €90.
- 11 Wineport Lodge, Wineport, Glasson N37 R2D7, ☏ , email@example.com. Upscale lodge by an inlet east shore of the lake. Great comfort, service and views. B&B double from €210.
- 12 Hodson Bay Hotel, Hodson Bay, Roscommon Rd N37 XR82 (off N61 seven km north of Athlone), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. 4-star hotel on west shore of Lough Ree, handy for lake activities. B&B double €220.
As of June 2021, Athlone and its approach roads have 5G from Eir and Vodafone, and 4G from Three.
- Clonmacnoise is 15 km south of Athlone on the banks of the Shannon. It's one of the best monastic sites in Ireland, rivalled only by Glendalough.
- Ballymahon northeast of Athlone is near Center Parcs.
- Tullamore and nearby Kilbeggan have famous distilleries.
- Roscommon has a crumbling castle and friary, and other medieval and prehistoric remains.
- Birr is an attractive small town 50 km southeast of Athlone. Its "Leviathan" telescope put it at the leading edge of astronomy for 70 years.