The Heart of Ireland

Reaching Athlone, the Heart of Ireland, meant I was really here, I also felt I was meant to be here. The Ireland I had read about, the Ireland I had imagined. The sight of the pointed church spire poking up through the early morning mist above the trees brought a lump to my throat. The old road into Athlone was a pot-holed affair, eventually as it wound on into the town, it became so narrow that two cars could hardly pass, never mind the cattle trucks on market day. This main road to the west, became a major bottleneck on market days and at weekends.

The shop-fronts are all painted in different pastel colours and every forty yards or so is a narrow lane between the shops leading to the waterfront of the river Shannon down by the weir. As you approach the bridge you catch your first glimpse of the verdigris copper dome of the church of St Peter and St Paul. To the left guarding the West Side stands Athlone Castle, now a museum, flying the orange, white and green tricolour. For many years right up to 1921 it had flown the Union Jack.

Over the bridge to the right you cannot miss the high imposing walls of the barracks, which follow the Shannon upstream towards the white steel Railway Bridge. The barracks housed the largest contingent of British troops outside of Dublin but in 1921 the British withdrew from the south and the border was drawn. It is home for the Irish Armed Forces now.

As with all river crossings, the one at Athlone has been fought over several times. The name of the town originates from one such battle, between a king of Leinster and a queen of Connacht, whose prize bulls were to do battle on their behalf. The red bull of Connacht, belonging to Queen Maeve and the white bull of belonging to a king of the Leinster province, fought all over the land from Dundalk to Athlone to the crossing by the Shannon at which point the red bull gored the white bull. It tore its loin off and tossed it into the river. “Ath” being river added to “Loin” making up Athlone.

I’m not making this up, somebody else might have, I just read their words! If you think this is far fetched then you should read the one about Chú Culainn ripping a huge rock from the land, hurling it into the Irish sea and became known as the Isle of Man, the hole left behind then filled with water and became Lough Neagh! However, when you visit Ireland, you are entering into country steeped in myths and legend. If you still believe in the tooth fairy and the Tory’s ability to improve the National Health Service and oil supplies lasting forever, then this story will be right up your street.

As we leave behind the “quaint, bustling market town”, as it is referred to in the brochures, we take the road to Roscommon. One mile up the road, just after Donohue’s Post Office, Bar, General Store and whatever else, on the other side of the road is a cross, behind some low black railings, to mark the place where an IRA man was shot by the British in 1917. Adjacent to the Athlone to Roscommon road is Lough Ree, which is a massive expanse of water. It has islands in it, on which people lived. Inchmore was the largest and had a church and a school along with a dozen or so houses. On windy days the waves can get up to six feet high and these inhabitants could be cut off for several days from the mainland. On the shores of the Lough is the splendid Hodsons Bay Hotel and its 18 hole Golf course.

Further up the road, turning right at Lecarrow takes you down to Warren Point and St Johns House. There is a short and long since abandoned canal here and the area is surrounded by ancient woodland. At this point you are looking due east up the mouth of the river Inny which enters the Lough after flowing through Oliver Goldsmith country. Here the Lough is over 5 miles wide. Goldsmith was a famous 18th century poet and playwright, born on 10th Nov 1730 at Kilkenny West, in Westmeath (or Pallas, near Portlaoise, or Elphin in Co. Roscommon depending on which Encyclopaedia you read). Amongst his renowned works are the poems, “The Traveller”, “The Deserted Village”, and the screenplay “She Stoops To Conquer”, (which Britain’s only woman Prime minister frequently did). Kilkenny West is a tiny village near to Glasson where stands a memorial in his honour. I once ended up there whilst in the middle of getting lost! It is however a very relaxing, stress free pastime in Ireland. I can think of no better country in which to get lost!

Somewhere in the middle of Lough Ree flows the River Shannon. This takes me back to myths and legends. I was having a glass of Guinness in the Bridge Bar at the Athlone-Roscommon road junction one evening, and I got into a conversation with this English fellow who lived on a houseboat on the Shannon. He told me about the Lough Ree monster. I was worried, my car was outside standing all alone. The Irish, not to be outdone by the Scots, who also like a drink or two, tell a better tale still, but privately concede it could maybe, with all possibility, be a large eel. Little legends in this environment grow larger by the measure! It grew from a couple of feet to a couple of yards as the night progressed. This large ‘eel’ has supposed to have pulled in many an angler’s fishing tackle whilst his back was turned. However, as many pints of Guinness as we had that night, the legend remained just a story fabricated via alcoholic assistance in the smoke and ambience of a bar. To the friendly people, Siobhan behind the bar and Mike on the customer’s side, who was desperately trying to get Siobhan to go out with him, thanks for your friendship during our time there.

Back in England a real scoop of a headline appeared, based on this topic, in one of the lower tabloids. Or did I read it on a chip wrapper? Anyway, the story was about a ‘monster’ pike, which was dragging ducks, Jack Russell terriers and anything else that moved, underwater and devouring them. ‘Monster pike eats pet Yorkshire Terrier”. Amazing! Monster is a splendid title for a little fish, and what an impressive title for a dishcloth on legs as well, come to think of it.

It is however quite common to catch pike 20lbs or more in Ireland. For some reason I perceive the tabloid journalists guilty of writing this crap as immature, ill educated and very gullible. The lower tabloids are better known for sensationalising trivia than for reporting the actual news.

Real news is reporting on the plight of 100,000 Kosovar men slaughtered (I still find it hard to believe in the year 2000 that this really happened) just because they were Albanian. Who knows what the headline would have been if the lower rags had understood about the Balkan problem. Thankfully they played safe with some trivial crap they were more accustomed to, an article about an unknown wannabe model from Newcastle having a boob job paid for by the NHS. It sells more copies, where idiots excitedly thumb through the pages hoping for pictures of before and after, which also gives you an insight into the cheap and largely gullible mentality of their readership! Good, now I’ve got that off my chest………..!! I feel a whole lot better.