Athlone, a first taste of the Irish Midlands

Athlone owes its existence to its location once as the principal crossing point on the River Shannon. Here the east of Ireland was linked to the west, and the river was an artery for communication and commerce. Originally named An Sean Ath Mor, “The Great Ford of Antiquity,” it later became “Atha Luain,” the “Ford of Luain” (an innkeeper who guided people across the river), and finally Athlone. The earliest artifacts found here date from around 2500 BC, in the Bronze Age, and remnants of an early monastery of the 1200s were found inside the castle beside the bridge.

Athlone Bridge, a principal and historic crossing over the River Shannon

View downstream from atop the Athlone Bridge

Athlone Castle was built in 1112, at the foot of the original wooden crossing bridge, and was converted to a stone fortress in the 1200s as an extension of the nearby military barracks complex, serving to defend the vital crossing and river for over 300 years. It has undergone several renovations, and is now an Irish national monument, open for tours.

A watercolor painting of the Athlone Castle and marketplace from the early 1800s

One of the drum towers of the Castle, from the interior courtyard.

Helicopters land and take off every few hours from the barracks across the street from the Castle

Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, a principal landmark on the west end of the Athlone Bridge

A statue of Christ at the peak of the cathedral roof

I didn’t go inside–there was a funeral beginning when I arrived

I chose Athlone knowing little about it, but that it was a fair distance from Galway toward interior Ireland’s Midlands, and was a town large enough to have lodging for me. I stayed in a room over a steakhouse/pub called Shine’s, named for a famous Irish singer who purchased the bar and small hotel in 1978 and then informed his wife that she was the new manager of both—her first knowledge of her role for the next 35 years. I arrived on a Sunday afternoon after driving from Galway, and the pub was full of families having Sunday meals, while I had wonderful fish and chips with a Guinness. No one mentioned when I booked my room, though, that the pub was closed Monday and Tuesday, so my two future breakfasts disappeared—meaning that I had to walk or drive into town to find something to eat during my stay.

Shine’s, my home in Athlone, about a mile from city center and Athlone Bridge

On the wall outside Shine’s Pub (I agree with the sign)

The story of singer Brendan Shine purchasing the pub and hotel in 1978

The accordion Shine played as he sang in the pub every night

Small businesses are mixed with homes in most of the small town

These are middle class Irish row homes.

I spent a good amount of my time in Athlone just talking to people I met as I walked around. They recommended places to eat, pubs to visit, and the boat tour of the lake. I found one of the captains and reserved a spot at 1 pm, and ended up being his only guest for a custom tour of Lough Ree (Lake Ree, pronounced “Lock Ree”) on his boat, the Romaris. For two hours, there were three of us on board—Justin, the captain; Riana, the cook (who served me strawberries and cream, and a pot of tea); and me. We cruised most of the way north on the lake, passing many small islands—now with severe restrictions on building, limiting any new construction to the footprint of buildings already on the islands. Toward the far end of the lake, there was a huge hotel, designed to be a wedding venue, that fronted on the lake with only woods and grassy fields within sight.

The Romaris, the boat that took me up to the northern end of Lough Ree

Barns and small boats line the shore near town

The Viking, another tour boat (also not full)

A small herd cooling off in the lake water near their barn

Swans are everywhere in Ireland, and property of the Queen

Returning to Athlone to dock the Romaris

Boys finishing up their rowing lessons for the day at the boat club

Many pubs, and many vintage Guinness signs everywhere

€150 fine for not “binning” your gum

Irish sense of humor on display

These signs are plentiful, all over Ireland. Their rate of suicide is four times the rate of Europe in general, and a major concern.

I was encouraged to visit Sean’s, the oldest pub in Ireland (and Guinness Book of World Records certified), located steps from where the Romaris was docked. The publican (bartender in a pub), Corey, welcomed me, and I sat and talked for more than an hour with a retired businessman, who had a regular seat that he defended as his, right at the end of the bar. Finally, I ordered my own pint of Guinness and joined him—but his day in Sean’s had started at 10 a.m. with his first pint of ale, and would end at about 3 p.m. with his last, when he would leave for home and bed. Sean’s was his entire day, every day of the week, and no one got that end seat but him. (After we shared a beer together, he flattered me, saying he MIGHT let me sit there on his stool one day.)

Sean’s Bar, the oldest pub in Ireland

The details about the pub’s long existence on this spot

Sean’s Bar, interior

Certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records–oldest bar in Ireland

My new friend and I shared beers together after a long conversation

A portion of Sean’s original wattle and mud walls revealed

Sean’s didn’t serve food, so I was sent to Murphy’s Law nearby, recommended because all of their food was made in house, and was delicious (I was told). I ordered what was becoming a regular afternoon meal for me—a seafood chowder, and it was heaped up in the bowl, and full of seafood and fish. It came with wholemeal Irish soda bread on the side, and some Irish butter to top it off. (“Why is the butter so deeply yellow?” I asked. “Because the cows eat Irish grass,” they answered.) Each time I ordered seafood chowder, it was better than the last time, and this was no exception.

Murphy’s Law pub, nearby, for a bite to eat

Logo of Murphy’s Law etched into the window glass

Murphy’s Law, interior

My seafood chowder–half gone before I remembered to take a photo, only €8

Athlone is a quiet town of small shops, but many pubs and small restaurants, too. The central city quickly gives way to Irish row houses, some scattered businesses, and then open fields and small canals running off of the Shannon River. As I was leaving I stopped to photograph a particular favorite attraction—a nursing home attached to a pub. When it’s my time, I’ll leave my family with instructions to send me to Athlone, where I can spend my time drinking Guinness at Monahan’s, next door to my room in “the home.”

Must be a cover band, at this price (€15)

My “final destination,” Stella Maris nursing home attached to Monahan’s Pub

Around the back of Monahan’s, a LOT of empty kegs




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