One Day In Athlone

Arriving in Athlone at 7.30AM, after a sleepless night, I’m greeted by a gloomy, wet darkness and a light mist. (All photos are on Galway COW Facebook page here) The whole town is silent bar the sound of my Converse high tops slapping off the pavement. These are my super hero shoes, I always wear them when I am intent on getting stuff done, which is probably why they are so clean and new looking in spite of having had them for about two years.

The reason I am here so early is because I want to take a photo of the Cathedral by the main bridge of the town which traverses the longest river in Ireland, the Shannon. The vibrant, but soft colours of dawn are always the best time to get such photos though in truth it’s a bit of a lottery whether any particular dawn will be dazzlingly spectacular or not.

I approach the bridge and set my camera bag down, unzip it, fumble a bit with settings, and take a photo which is obscured by condensation. Upon wiping the lens and making a few more efforts I decide that the angle at which I’m taking my photo isn’t very satisfying and so resolve to go to its right side whereby the Cathedral will be kind of framed on the left side by the bridge.

St Peter and Paul’s Church Athlone
St Peter and Paul’s Church, Athlone

Upon the realisation that the photo I took is about as good as things were going to get, I cross the bridge and take a walk along the river, taking a photo or two as the mood takes me.

After about half a mile I come to the end of the path where there is a couple of park benches overlooking the river.

At this point the path takes a U-turn along a canal and back towards the town.

A gloomy, wet dawn hangs in the air as I plod along. After a time I pass a shop on the right called DB Cycles which I had read the night previously, on its Facebook page, is shutting down, after 40+ years, on account of no longer being a sustainable business which it attributed to online shopping and rising rents. The internet, for all its wonders, unfortunately spells the death for the common man in business.

Around the corner from here, for about half a mile, is like death row and it seems every second building is abandoned or dilapidated with a For Sale/Rent sign outside of it. In contrast, for every abandoned premises there appears to be a shiny new solicitor’s office. I guess compensation claims is a thriving industry in Ireland; though I expect divorce, custody battles, and buying and selling houses must bring in a few euro too.

A chill setting in, I decide to stop in a pub for a cup of tea and strike up a chat with the barman. Asking about the boarded up premises he informs me that the street I’m talking about used to be the thriving hub of the town and that it was a kind of no man’s land on the border of Westmeath and Roscommon.

When I’ve had my tea and warmed up a bit, I head to the inside of St Peter & Paul’s Church and learn a bit about when it was built. Upon taking a few photos of the stained glass windows I decide to sit by the river for a spell. All morning I’ve been looking for a “target” to shoot and it’s just felt like there was nobody around. Looking at my watch and seeing that it’s only 10.30AM on a cold, wet, winter’s morning it’s probably not all that surprising. At this point, I feel like rolling up on the bench and going to sleep, which seems like a very sensible idea until the cold seeps through into my core.

In spite of a lack of people around, I’m determined to get something meaningful from the day and so resolve to have a gander around Athlone castle, which one can do for the princely sum of €8.

In the first room I learn that the first settlers are thought to have arrived in Ireland around 9000BC and survived by fishing and hunting, which in those days would have been plentiful. “Can’t have been many vegans then,” I think. In truth, anyone with vegan tendencies in post-ice age Ireland would either have to get over themselves or lie down and die (the last ice age was only 11,700 years ago from which point the planet has been steadily warming, but what most people don’t realise is that, technically, since there is still significant ice at the polls, we are still in an ice age).

Early settlements always positioned themselves around rivers and so it’s always interesting to think how the biggest cities are always next to rivers. In the early days, with such rivers teeming with fish, it must have been like building your house next to Tescos.

Reading all the displays on the first floor, I learn that there isn’t a huge amount of history recorded over the course of 9000BC to 1689 but what was recorded centred around fighting, religion, a bit of pillaging, and a spot of raping, with the castle itself, since being built of wood in the twelfth century, being attacked, burned, and rebuilt on multiple occasions over the years.

The second floor in the castle recounts in slightly more detail, the Williamite Wars from 1689-1691 which raged between the Jacobites and the Williamites. The Jacobites were loyal to the dethroned King James II while the Williamites were loyal to the Protestant William of Orange and it transpires that all that was west of the Shannon (I.E: Connacht) was the last line of defense under the Jacobites under Patrick Sarsfield until his armies surrendered in Aughrim in Galway in 1691.

After a time, I leave the castle and go for a wander around the corner to Sean’s Bar.

Noticing saw dust on the tiled floor I enquire as to the reason for it and am told that it is because the pub is the oldest in the world and has a Guinness Book of Records certificate to prove it. Originally built in 900AD, I also learn that Athlone was the first place in the world to distill whisky.

At this point I resolve to cross the river and head back towards the station and have a quick walk around the Athlone Town Centre, which is a shopping centre full of global franchises like TK Max, Tommy Hilfigger, Zara, and Starbucks. A very modern centre, it is as busy as a bee-hive today and I realise that this is where the whole town hangs out on chilly Saturday mornings in January.

Gleaming, fresh, and modern, with all the languages one can hear and all the global brands on offer, one could easily be in Poland, Germany, America, or maybe even Nigeria or India.

Too sleepy headed to take any more pictures, I have a coffee and make my way back to the train station.

Like when I was in Limerick last week, I felt like I missed huge parts of what the town has to offer. “I’ll need to return in the summer,” I think.

I’ll pop up the rest of the pictures later on, but for now that is all I have to say about my One Day In Athlone.

Tipperary on the 2nd February and Cork on the 9th are next up. If you wanna be one of my faces in the places then click interested on the event. Alternatively, if there’s something interesting in your town, be sure to let me know.

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