Athlone Castle was built to defend a strategic crossing point of the River Shannon, forming a well-guarded gateway into Connacht. It is likely that the original Norman castle was constructed on the site of an earlier fortification established by the Ua Conchobair (O’Connor) kings of Connacht, as the Annals of the Four Masters record that a castle and bridge were built at Athlone by Toirrdelbach Ua Conchobair in 1129.
The present castle began to take its shape in 1210, when John de Grey was ordered by King John of England to build three castles in Connacht. However, just one year after it was constructed, the stone tower collapsed, killing nine men, including Richard de Tuite, the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. The castle was quickly rebuilt, and historical records show significant sums were spent on its maintenance and upkeep throughout the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
During the chaos that engulfed Ireland in the wake of the Bruce invasion of 1315, the King of Connacht, Ruaidri na bhFeadh Ó Conchobair, seized the opportunity to attack the Anglo-Norman lands, and launched an assault on Athlone, burning the town and attacking the castle. The castle changed hands between the English and Irish many times during the 14th and 15th centuries, until it was finally recaptured by the English in 1537, as it is recorded in the Carew Manuscripts that the: ‘Castle of Athlone, standing upon a passage betwixt Connaught and these parts, is recovered, which has long been usurped by the Irish’.
The castle was repaired and became the residence of the Presidents of Connacht after 1569. However, the region was still not pacified. Shortly afterwards, in 1573, an army of Scottish warriors, gunners and mercenary soldiers, led by the rebel James FitzMaurice FitzGerald, burned the town on the eastern bank of the Shannon. At the end of the 16th century, Athlone was threatened once again. This time by the forces of Hugh O’Neill during the bloody Nine Years’ War. O’Neill’s army burned and destroyed many farms throughout the region.
They approached Athlone with a strong force of 1,500 men. However, they found that the people of Athlone remained loyal to the English authorities, and so, without any support, the rebels withdrew. Despite the unsettled times, the early 17th century was a time of growth and development for Athlone, and an active merchant class thrived. The town became a borough corporation, that was entitled to return two representatives to the Irish parliament. Town-wall fortifications and gatehouses were built to protect the town, and those defences would soon be put to the test.
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