1991:124 - Athlone Castle, Athlone, Westmeath

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Westmeath Site name: Athlone Castle, Athlone

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number:

Author: Andrew Halpin, Archaeological Development Services Ltd. The Power House, Pigeon House Harbour, Dublin 4.

Site type: Medieval/post-medieval castle

ITM: E 620246m, N 724229m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.268013, -7.696494

In January 1991 Archaeological Development Services Ltd carried our a short excavation on behalf of Athlone Urban District Council in Athlone Castle. The purpose of the excavation was to determine the date of a wall within the castle yard, which the Council proposed to demolish in the course of preparing an Exhibition Centre for the Athlone 1691 Tercentenary celebrations.

Athlone Castle is thought to be a structure of mainly 13th-century fabric, possibly on the site of a 12th-century castle of the Uí Conchobhair and/or late 12th century Anglo-Norman motte-and-bailey castle. Little is known of the later medieval history of the castle but a drawing of 1685 by Thomas Phillips shows it to have been an impressive structure, with a fine suite of apartments (the residence of the governors of Connacht) overlooking the river on the east side. Within a few years, however, the castle lay in ruins as a result of the Williamite siege of 1691. As late as 1793 the castle was almost entirely levelled; the only standing remains was the stump of the central keep ‘about 5 to 10 feet high’ and even the curtain walls stood no higher than internal ground level. From 1793 to 1815, efforts to fortify the Shannon against a French invasion via the west coast of Ireland included substantial rebuilding of Athlone Castle. It is clear that this work must have involved almost complete rebuilding above internal ground level.

The wall, located in the south-west corner of the castle yard, ran between an armaments store and a domestic building, both of late 18th/early 19th-century date; it was 1.05m-1.2m thick at the base and built of coursed, roughly dressed limestone blocks with a limestone rubble core. Its maximum surviving height was c. 4.2m, but a wall-line on the south wall of the armaments building indicates that it originally abutted this building to a height of c. 6m. Two cuttings were opened on either side of the wall at its junction with the armaments building. This confirmed that the foundations of the wall rested on redeposited boulder clay and sand/gravel layers, apparently laid down in order to level up a depression or sharp slope in the area, and almost certainly in preparation for the construction of the wall. It was clear from the foundation details that the wall was contemporary with the armaments building (of late 18th- or 19th-century date) to the north.

The conclusion that the wall is of modern date is nor surprising in view of the evidence that practically the entire upstanding fabric of the castle, above internal ground level, must post-date 1793. As a result of the excavation the proposed development by Athlone Urban District Council was able to proceed as planned.