Athlone Castle

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.

Athlone Castle and walls by the banks of the river Shannon

Athlone Castle • Westmeath

Athlone in the turbulent mid-17th century

The keep of Athlone Castle, on a cloudy day

The central tower, or keep, of Athlone Castle • Westmeath

The keep of Athlone Castle, on a cloudy day

The central tower, or keep, of Athlone Castle • Westmeath

The First Siege of Athlone Castle, 1690

The walls of Athlone Castle

The walls of Athlone Castle • Westmeath

The Great Siege of Athlone Castle, 1691

Sergeant Custume Athlone Castle

A depiction of Sergeant Custume • Athlone Castle

By the end of the seventh day, west Athlone was in ruins. Under cover of the bombardment a group of Williamite engineers began to lay planks across the broken arches of the bridge, to prepare for a frontal assault by Ginkel’s army.

An Irish sergeant of dragoons named Custume, and a band of ten volunteers, armed themselves with axes, picks and crowbars. They rushed from behind the remnants of the fortifications to smash down the nearly completed bridge. In response, the Williamite artillery once again roared across the bridge, accompanied by deadly volleys of musket fire. The incredibly brave volunteers managed to break away some of the timbers, but when the musket smoke cleared, all eleven men, including the valiant Sergeant Custume, lay dead. Inspired by their bravery, another band of volunteers rushed to break the bridge. Again they were met with a hail of musketry. Most of the party were casualties, but they managed to complete the destruction of the repair works, thwarting the Williamite assault plan.

Ever resourceful, Ginkel, explored the possibility of an assault across the old ford that had given Athlone its name. A band of grenadiers led by Colonel Gustavus Hamilton carried out a surprise attack. As they gained the opposite bank of the river they took the defenders unaware, hurling their grenades and charging into the breach. They moved so quickly that the shocked garrison retreated in the face of their speed and aggression. Immediately the victors manned the fortifications on the west side of the town to prevent the Jacobite army encamped outside from mounting a counter- attack. Meanwhile the Williamites repaired the bridge, allowing troops to advance across it to reinforce the grenadiers. When Saint-Ruhe saw the strength and deployment of the Williamite forces, he abandoned any attempt at a counter-attack. Despite the heroic defence of the town, after eleven hard days Athlone had fallen to Ginkel and the Williamites. Saint-Ruhe led the remains of the Jacobite forces further into Connacht, where they were heavily defeated at the bloody Battle of Aughrim just two weeks later.

The Later History of Athlone Castle

Upper left: Athlone Castle • Lower left: the exhibition of the Second Siege of Athlone • Right: Entrance to Athlone Castle

Top: Athlone Castle • Middle: Entrance to Athlone Castle • Bottom: the exhibition of the Second Siege of Athlone