Set in the geographical heart of Ireland, Athlone is sliced in two by the mighty River Shannon, so it seems suitable that the town has a pair of heritage trails, one to the west of the river (the Connaught Walk) and one to the east (the Leinster Walk).
The 2.6km Connaught Walk commences at the town’s 19th Century bridge, an arched limestone structure that evokes Athlone’s historical importance as a fording point, a link between Leinster and the west that has been the focus of multiple attacks and sieges through the ages. Little wonder the brooding Norman castle, next stop on the trail, seems so stoutly fortified. Established on the site of an earlier wooden fortification, Athlone Castle dates from 1210 and its squat structure houses a visitor centre with exhibitions on Count John Count McCormack (the famous tenor, who was born in the town in 1884), the Williamite Siege of Athlone and the River Shannon.
From here, the Connaught Walk forays into the town’s lively left bank, passing Sean’s Bar (the oldest in Ireland, according to a framed Guinness Book of Records certificate inside) and a peppering of galleries, eateries and bookshops, before arriving at the lock gates.
Other stops on the Connaught Walk include the twin spires and Italianate dome of St. Peter and Paul’s Church (surprisingly, it was completed as recently as 1937) and the town’s iconic white railway bridge, which leads to the old Great Western railway station itself.
Meanwhile, the 2.9km Leinster Walk explores Athlone’s old town walls before passing St. Mary’s Church, the Gothic Revival Methodist church, a former workhouse, the Old Court Devenish House (an ivy clad old ruin with Jacobean windows intact) and McCormack’s birthplace. Its plum location made for a turbulent history, but Athlone has today blossomed into a midlands tourist hub and the gateway town for Lough Ree and waterway gems like Clonmacnoise. Its shops and restaurants might tempt you to stay a little longer too.