Athlone castle has an early ‘pre-Norman' history.  King Turlough Mor O'Connor of Connaught (d.1156) built a new bridge over the Shannon in 1129 and founded a castle to protect it.  This castle was attacked, but held out in 1132 against a combined attack from the men of Munster (Tairdelbach O'Brian (d.1167)) and Meath (Tiernan O'Rourke (d.1172)).  They were later joined by King Cormac MacCarthy of Desmond (d.1138) after he had taken Galway castle and sailed his fleet up the Shannon.  Athlone then fell and bridge and castle were destroyed.    The castle seems to have been rebuilt by King Turlough O'Connor (d.1156) as in 1133/35 the castle and bridge were destroyed by King Murchad  O'Maelseachlainn of Meath (d.1153) and Tiernan O'Rourke (d.1173).

Over 50 years later a Lincolnshire man, Geoffrey Costentin (d.1232) is supposed to have built a castle at Athlone.   Before his death in 1186, Walter Lacy of Trim had granted Geoffrey the land of Kilbixy with its castle and the service of 5 knights along with the land of Conemake beside it, but beyond the River Inny containing 15 knights' fees, all to be held for 4 fees.  These lands lay about 15 miles north-east of Athlone.  In November 1200, King John (1199-1216) gave Constentin Tirieghrachbothe cantref for 5 knights' fees in exchange for the lands of Leis and Honkreuthenan which the king wished to give to Meilor Fitz Henry (d.1220).  By April 1201, King Cathal Crovderg (d.1202) had come to the king's peace and surrendered his lands around Athlone.  As a result Geoffrey Costentin was granted the cantref of Tirmany.  On 2 November 1201 Meilor Fitz Henry (d.1220), William Burgh (d.1206) and Geoffrey were ordered to inform the barons of Meath that Cathal had come to the king's peace.

In 1210, Justiciar John Gray (d.1214) began building Athlone castle on or near the site of O'Connor's castle.  This work is alleged to have cost £129.  Under 1211 in the Mac Carthaigh Book is the entry:

A castle [was built] at Athlone by the followers of the king of England and a bridge eastwards across the Shannon and a town at the eastern end of the bridge.

According to the Roscommon annals:

The tower at Athlone falls, killing Lord Richard Tuit with many others.

The Clonmacnoise and Kilronan chronicles gave more details:

The English bishop... and Richard Tuit founded a stone castle in Athlone, wherein there was a tower of stone built, which soon after fell and killed the said Richard Tuit with 8 Englishmen more.

[The king] left the chief government of Ireland to the English bishop [John Grey of Norwich, d.1214] and told him to build 3 castles in Connaught.  The English bishop soon after raised an army in Meath and Leinster and marched to Athlone and there erected a bridge across the ford and a castle on the site of O'Connor's castle.

Finally it was recorded in the annals of the Four Masters that:

Previous to his being called to England, this lord justice [John Gray, d.1214] went to Athlone to erect a castle there that he might send his relations to Limerick, Waterford and Wexford and that he himself might make Dublin and Athlone his principal quarters.  For this purpose he raised forces in Leinster and Meath, where Richard Tuit had been the most powerful Englishman since the flight of the Lacys to France [1210], and marched to Athlone where be built a bridge across the Shannon and a castle on the site of the one which had been built by Turlough Mor O'Connor in the year 1129.  But it happened through the effects of the anathema pronounced against this warlike bishop by the Coarb of St Peter and the miraculous interposition of St Peter and St Kieran into whose sanctuaries he was extending the outworks of the castle, that he lost, on this occasion, Richard Tuit, the most distinguished of his barons, as also Tuit's chaplain and 7 other Englishmen, for one of the towers of the castle fell and overwhelmed them in the ruins.

After the castle and bridge had been commenced the Englishmen of Munster with Geoffrey Marisco (d.1245) [Adare], Thomas Fitz Maurice (d.1215) [Shanid] and Donnogh Carbreagh O'Brian marched through Connaught to Athlone where they met the bishop.  This was obviously before the autumn of 1212 when the castle tower collapsed.  That the castle had been forcibly built on church land was confirmed on 22 August 1214, when the king commanded Archbishop Henry of Dublin to cause the monks of Athlone to have a tenth part of the expenses of the castle in that town in exchange for their land on which the castle was situated, as the bishop of Norwich undertook to do when he began fortifying that castle.  It would seem likely that Geoffrey was made custodian of the castle again, but removed in August 1214 when he was given Trithweth cantref to hold by the service of 4 knights in exchange for the cantref in which Athlone castle stood.  Despite this, the king ordered on 6 July 1215, that Godfrey Costentin should safely keep the castle of Athlone (Aslon) as he had previously kept it.  This state of affairs was confirmed on 13 September 1215, when the king granted Richard Burgh (d.1242) of all the land of Connaught (Connac) which William his father held... saving to the king the castle of Athlone with its cantref and saving to Godfrey Costentin the cantref given him by the king in exchange for the former cantref.  At the same time the king confirmed to the king of Connaught (Kunnoc') of all the land of Connaught to hold of the king in fee during good service....., saving to the king the castle of Athlone.  There was further trouble with this exchange, for on 30 May 1216, King John (1199-1216) commanded Justiciar Geoffrey Marisco (d.1245) to cause an exchange with the prior of Athlone for the 4 cantrefs in the fee of Logseuethy assigned to the prior by Bishop John of Norwich in compensation for the site of the king's castle of Athlone.  The prior was disseised of these 4 cantrefs when the king restored Walter Lacy's land of Meath.  The king further commanded the justiciar to cause satisfaction to the prior touching an exchange for his meadow, his fisheries worth 12m (£8) and the tithes of the castle.

With the threat of warfare with Hugh Lacy (d.1242) the custody of Athlone castle was transferred from the justiciar to Thomas Fitz Adam on 18 October 1223.  It was probably at the end of Hugh Lacy's war about November 1224 that an inventory was made of what was found in Athlone castle.  This consisted of 4 coats of mail, 2 with and 2 without coifs (coiphae); 9 iron helmets (capelli ferrei), 1 helmet, 2 mangonels with 120 strings and slings, 1 cable, 1 crossbow with wheel (balissa ad troil), 5 basins, 4 broken tubs, 2 anchors, ironwork of 2 mills, 1 chasuble, 1 consecrated altar, 1 figured cloth (pannus inscisus) to put before the altar.  This was better than the contents of Limerick castle at the time, but not half as good as the munitions in Dublin castle.

On 23 June 1226, the king notified Justiciar Geoffrey Marisco that Earl William Marshall (d.1231) had, on 22 June, surrendered the office of justiciar of Ireland and all the king's land together with the castles of Dublin, Athlone and Drogheda.  A week later on 30 June 1226, Geoffrey was ordered to seize the land of Connaught on account of the forfeiture of Aedh O'Connor (Oethus ap Kathal, d.1228), the son of Cathal Crobderg (d.1224), formerly king, and give seisin to Richard Burgh (d.1242) at a rent of 300m (£200) for the first 5 years and 500m (£333 6s 8d) subsequently.  Once again 5 of the best cantrefs near the castle of Athlone were to be retained for king's use.  In August 1226 the new justiciar, Geoffrey Marisco (d.1245), wrote to the king that he had arrived in Ireland despite the attempts of Earl William Marshall (d.1231) [Dunamase, Carlow and Ferns] and Theobald Walter (d.1230) [Nenagh] to oppose him.  All the king's English subjects of Ireland except William Baron of Naas, Walter Riddlesford (d.1231+) [Kilkea], Matthew Fitz Gruffydd and John Clahull of Leinster, took oaths of fealty.  Theobald Walter (d.1230), who came unwillingly to Dublin, refused to take the oath asserting that he could not unless in the presence of the earls or by his mandate as the custody of the castles [he held] were granted by him.  He had fortified Dublin castle against the king and all the castles of Ireland were fortified against the king except for Limerick, which was held by Richard Burgh (d.1242) who was loyal.  All the Irish were banded together and so wheedled by William Crassus (d.1234+) that they could not be recalled from their conspiracy.  Geoffrey did not believe that the earl was the cause of this dissension, but he could not obtain the king's castles from the earl's bailiffs and they were being fortified more and more each day.  Walter Lacy (d.1242) [Trim] would do nothing against the king's dignity because of the confederacy between the earl and Walter's son, Gilbert Lacy (d.1230).  Geoffrey had ordered King Aedh of Connaught (d.1228) to appear at Dublin under the safe conduct of Walter Lacy, but he had not come.  The justiciar therefore had appointed a day for him to come to Athlone castle which he described as on the confines of the king's lands and which was fortified with men and provisions against the king.  If Aedh did not come to Athlone the justiciar intended to move against him.  Finally, Geoffrey advised the king to take into his hand the royal castle of Roscrea which had been committed to Theobald Walter (d.1230) during pleasure as he had misconducted himself against the king, even though he was married to Geoffrey's daughter and had by her a son [Theobald Walter, d.1248].  Regardless of this, Geoffrey recommended that the king deprived him of all the land he held in Ireland [Nenagh].  Further, the Earl Marshall had been removed from his justiciarship due to his continued support of King Aedh against Richard Burgh (d.1242).  The crisis ended the same year, but Aedh was subsequently murdered, possibly in Adare castle in 1228, while Richard Burgh was made justiciar to continue his conquest of Connaught.  Consequently on 25 July 1229, King Henry III (1216-72) ordered his justiciar, Richard Burgh, to reorganise the land of Connaught.  He noted that the cantref of Trithweth had been given by King John to Godfrey Costentin in exchange for the cantref in which Athlone castle stands: the king giving Godfrey 30 knights fees more remote from the castle and nearer the Irish, while retaining in his own hand 20 knights fees in the vicinity of the castle.

In 1232, Earl Hubert Burgh of Kent (d.1243) was briefly made justiciar of Ireland.  On 28 July 1232, the king ordered him to have the castle and city of Limerick committed to Peter Rivaux (d.1262) for life.  A few days later on 1 August 1232, the king further committed for life to Peter the custody of castles of Athlone, Drogheda, Limerick and Rindoon, ordering Richard Burgh (d.1242) to hand them over.  Rivaux fell from grace the next year and Athlone castle was resumed by the Crown.  Subsequently in 1235, Richard Burgh (d.1242) completed his conquest of Connaught from King Felim O'Connor (d.1265), the brother of the murdered Aedh.  Athlone castle, however, remained in royal hands.

On 30 June 1240, the king granted Walter Lacy 20m (£13 6s 8d) pa for the custody of Athlone castle.  Fifteen years later the castle was ordered repaired in June 1251.  By 1274 John Tuit, the grandson of the Richard Tuit who was killed in the collapsing keep in 1211, was constable of Athlone for the king.  Money was spent on the castle in 1268, 1276 and 1279, while between 1273 and 1276, work was undertaken at the fortress by Justiciar Geoffrey Geneville (d.1314) of Trim.  After this the castle seems to have become rather a backwater although in 1315 certainly the town and according to one report the castle was burned by Edward Bruce (d.1318).

In 1547 a residence was built within the fortress for the king's governor.  Twenty years later in 1567 the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney, built a new stone bridge over the Shannon at Athlone stating it was ‘a piece found serviceable, I am sure durable it is and I think memorable'.  In 1578 the town was strengthened by the building of the Northgate and the Eastgate.  The castle was besieged for 22 weeks in 1641 and then abandoned to the Catholics in 1643.  In 1650 Athlone was captured by Sir Charles Coote on his second attempt on the place and then became the newly fortified centre for the Cromwellian ‘transplantation' of the Irish Catholic elite into Connaught.

The castle was garrisoned under Colonel Richard Grace for King James II (d.1701) in 1690 and beat off an attack by the forces of King William III (1689-1702) only to be badly damaged in 1691 when bombarded and captured by General Ginkell for the Williamites.  Around 1700 a new army barracks was constructed in the town, with the damaged castle being used as additional accommodation.  Subsequently the fortifications were reduced in height in 1804 and fitted out to carry modern artillery.  Simultaneously the curtains were rebuilt or at least massively reinforced to mount rail mounted artillery.  The British finally withdrew from the castle in 1922, while the Irish Defences forces only left in 1969, leaving the place as a tourist attraction.

As the site of Athlone castle has been occupied continuously over the centuries it is difficult to judge what form the original castle took in the thirteenth century, let alone in the twelfth.  Firstly, all the earthworks have gone.  Secondly the Napoleonic refortification has significantly changed the layout of the castle. 

The innermost part of the castle, lying slightly towards the south-west of the late enceinte, consists of a decagonal tower.  Whether this is the tower built by King John in the aftermath of the 1212 disaster, or a repair of the same structure, is an open question.  Possibly it might even be the castle of King Turlough Mor O'Connor commenced in 1129, for the Irish had a long tradition of building towers.  Regardless of who built it, the new tower bears a certain resemblance to the polygonal keep at Odiham built by King John (1199-1216).

Athlone keep is about 40' in diameter with walls some 6' thick.  At the base there is a thick, irregular plinth which is obviously an addition.  The castle is currently entered via a probably Napoleonic doorway, lying about 3' above the current courtyard level, which itself could be some 20' above the original medieval ground level.  The doorway and all the other surviving keep openings would appear to be nineteenth century in origin, as too are the odd projecting rectangular garderobe-like turrets occupying half of each of the 10 faces at second floor level.  Presumably the top 2 thirds of the tower are missing, pulled down in 1793 when the tower base was converted into a barrack room.

The enceinte surrounding the keep is an odd affair.  Presumably the thirteenth century castle consisted of a trapezoidal enclosure with a tower at each cardinal point.  Of these only the putative south tower has been totally destroyed.  The east and west tower are probably the largest, both being over 30' in external diameter, while the north tower is more like 25'.  Despite this they all appear of the same build.  No trace of any original curtain remains between the towers with the east and west towers attached to the Napoleonic enceinte via thick gorges.  The west tower has also had its north-east and east faces made flat to cover the approach to the Napoleonic entrance ramp as well as its interior.  The north tower is joined directly to the Napoleonic enceinte in the manner of a normal corner tower.  All 3 towers are devoid of early features and all 3 have been cut down to mount artillery.  The towers are made of well coursed rubble masonry, unlike the later Napoleonic curtain walls which are much less well laid.  The southern half of the enceinte now houses nineteenth century buildings and has an impressive plinth to the west and another one of those peculiar Napoleonic projections towards the west.


Copyright©2022 Paul Martin Remfry