Where the river runs shallow, the deepest
Knowledge washed up on either bank
Is that to discover a place of crossing over
And back safely again is also to discover
A place to live, a place of houses and towers
And bells calling to each other across water.
An áit is tanaí uisce na h-abhann, is ann is doimhne
An fios a bhrúitear in airde ar an dá mbruach
Gurb ionann teacht ar áit trasnaithe anonn
Is anall arís slán agus teacht ag an am gcéanna
Ar áit chónaithe, áit lán tithe agus túranna
Le cloganna ag gairm ar a chéile thar uisce.
Paddy Bushe, 2019
River. Given the topographic layout of the the River Shannon, Athlone provided the only accessible fording point in prehistoric times between Clonmacnoise in the South and the expanse of Lough Ree. This legacy is not only evident in the name Athlone (Baile Átha Luain) itself - a reference to Luan who is said to have guided travellers across the river in medieval times - but also in an a great number of Bronze Age and Iron Age artefacts found at the bottom of the ford and river. Some of these were included and referenced in the mid-19th C. ‘Plunket Watercolours’ at the RIA, including an oval macehead (I-3) and a battle axe (I-10). This legacy led to the crossing being referred to as the ‘Ancient Ford of Antiquity’. In the early 12th C., a wooden bridge was built by the King of Connacht, Toirdhealbhach Ó Conchobhair, which was subsequently replaced with a stone bridge by Henry Sidney in the 16th C. and again with the present Italianate-style bridge in the early 1840s a bit further to the north. The Athlone section of the Shannon gained notoriety by providing access for Vikings to their settlements on Lough Ree in the 930s, while almost a millennium later, ambitious plans intended to develop Athlone into a major inland port - a venture that was defeated by the arrival of the railway in the region.
Churches. Church Street provides direct access to the 19th C. bridge mentioned above, linking the crossing to the old road to Dublin. The site is located at a junction that led to the North Gate and the Dublin Gate. The street name indicates the history of the street and adjoining areas as the site for Athlone’s churches. The present St. Mary’s church, built in 1827, occupies the site of earlier churches dating back as far as the 1450s. The restored and extended limestone/ashlar tower of the previous church with its delicately carved doorway is all that remains of the previous church, built c. 1622. It is now a strong feature in the ensemble of ecclesial architecture in Church Street, together with the seven-bay RC church to the south. The latter was built in the grounds of the former Franciscan Friary in 1931 by Jones & Kelly in a Hiberno-Romanesque style and features Harry Clarke Studio windows. Ss. Peter and Paul, also built in the 1930s, is directly visible from the site.
Poetry. The history of Athlone is commemorated in various poems and songs, some performed by the town’s native John McCormack. Poetry in the Park, now a well-established annual festival, continues this literary and cultural heritage which includes writer John Broderick and the poet Jackie Gorman.