The Siege of Athlone

I was very pleased to hear that the visitor centre in Athlone Castle received a much need revamp late last year. The exhibition was very tired and outdated and we were very disappointed when we moored the Nieuwe Zorgen beneath the castle walls in 2010. I am keen to revisit now and see what has been done with the massive €2 million budget.

A recent article in the Westmeath Independent caught my eye – What do Harry Potter, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Athlone Castle have in common? Apparently the company that created some of the props from these two blockbusters are also responsible for the sculptures on display in the new centre. These sculptures depict some of the main figures of the siege of Athlone, including Sergeant Custume, Colonel Richard Grace and Lieutenant General Godard Van Reede Van Ginkel.

River Shannon view from Athlone Castle

River Shannon view from Athlone Castle

To honour this I have decided to post an excerpt from my book outlining part of the siege:

By the 17th century a new curtain wall and bastions were built around the eastern side of the town and earthen ramparts around the west. This was the period of the Jacobite War between King James II and William of Orange. King James II had been deposed by his daughter and her husband William, and James fled to France. Here he gained support from Louis XIV who aided his journey to Ireland to face battle with William at the now infamous Battle of the Boyne.  Following the Irish defeat at the Boyne in 1690, the Jacobite forces retreated to the west of Ireland, and regrouped in Limerick to prepare the defence of the line of the Shannon. The Williamites knew that Athlone was vital to the defence of Connacht, so they attacked Athlone with a force of 10,000 under the Scottish Lieutenant General, James Douglas. The aged Colonel Richard Grace defended the castle and the Williamites retreated. Apparently he declared that he would ‘defend Athlone until he had eaten his old boots’ and then blow himself up rather then surrender. 

The following year the Williamites returned, this time numbering 25,000 men under the command of the Dutch Godard van Reede, baron de Ginkel. The Irish troops defended the town from the Connacht side of the river, under the command of the French General the marquis St. Ruth, and broke down several arches of the bridge so the Williamite forces could not cross over from the captured Leinster side of Athlone.

 The Williamite forces bombarded the castle with grenades, stone shot and canon balls, and attempted to repair the damaged bridge. Sergeant Custume and his Irish men defended the bridge and dislodged the attempted repairs of the bridge, but Ginkel crossed at the ford and entered the castle on June 30th 1691. His reward from William II was the title of Earl of Athlone (a title that remained with his descendants until 1844) and Baron of Aughrim. The Jacobite war continued with the Battle of Aughrim and reached its climax in Limerick, where the Irish army under Patrick Sarsfiled fell. Under the treaty of Limerik they were given the choice of sailing to France to join the army of Louis XIV, or returning to their farms. Those that went to France became known as ‘the wild geese’.


The Ballad of Athlone

Does any man dream that a Gael can fear?
Of a thousand deeds let him learn but one!
The Shannon swept onwards broad and clear,
Between the leaguers and broad Athlone.

‘Break down the bridge!’ – Six warriors rushed
Through the storm of shot and the storm of shell;
With late but certain victory flushed.
The grim Dutch gunners eyed them well.

They wrench’d at the planks ‘mid a hail of fire;
They fell in death, their work half done;
The bridge stood fast; and nigh and nigher
The foe swarmed darkly, densely on.

“Oh, who for Erin, will strike a stroke?
Who hurl yon planks where the waters roar?
Six warriors forth from their comrades broke,
And flung them upon that bridge once more.

Again at the rocking planks they dashed;
And four dropped dead, and two remained;
The huge beams groaned, and the arch down-crashed –
Two stalwart swimmers the margin gained.

St. Ruth in his stirrups stood up, and cried,
“I have seen no deed like that in France!”
With a toss of his head, Sarsfield replied,
“They had luck, the dogs!’Twas a merry chance!

O many a year, upon Shannon’s side,
They sang upon moor and they sang upon heath,
Of the twain that breasted that raging tide,
And the ten that shook bloody hands with Death!

By Aubrey de Vere


Lough Key Forest Park

The Lough Key Forest Park has been developed in recent years into an activity centre consisting of the Lough Key Experience, Boda Borg and Adventure Kingdom. Part of the Lough Key Experience is a 300 metre long tree canopy walk that brings you through part of the forest, 9 metres above the ground. The tree-top walk emerges at the waters edge, just next to the Waterways Ireland mooring facilities, where there are excellent views across the lake to Castle Island.

Tree Canopy Walk Lough Key Forest Park

Tree Canopy Walk Lough Key Forest Park

Another interesting part of the ‘experience’ are the 19th century tunnels which lead out to the Moylurg Viewing Tower. The Tower stands in the place of Rockingham House, which was designed by the architect John Nash in 1809. The house was destroyed by fire in 1957, and the surviving walls were demolished in 1971. The viewing tower was built in 1973, and although it provides some beautiful panoramas of the lake and the park, personally I find the tower quite ugly and imposing. The bottom of the tower sits in the basement area of the house, where the servants’ quarters would have been, and the underground passages that lead to the harbour and the turf quay.

Moylurg Tower Lough Key Forest Park

Moylurg Tower Lough Key Forest Park

Trinity Island lies offshore to the west of Castle Island, just beyond Drummans Island. The MacDermot family gave the 2 acre island to the White Canons of St. Francis in the 13th century, where they remained until the suppression of the monasteries in the 17th century. The White Canons belonged to the Premonstratensian Order, which was founded by St Norbert at Prémontré Abbey, near Laon in north-eastern France in 1120. Their name stemmed from the white colour of their habits. They began construction of Holy Trinity Abbey soon after the MacDermots granted the land to them in 1220. The Abbey was constructed from the local rocks found around Lough Key, such as pale-grey sandstone and limestone which are found on the southern shore. The Annals of Loch Cé, which cover the period between 1014 and 1590, were written on Trinity Island. There is a tomb on the island where the body of Úna Bhán MacDermot lies. She was the daughter of the Chief Brian Óg MacDermot who refused permission for her to marry Tomás Láidir Costello, the son of one of his enemies. She is said to have died of a broken heart, and Tomás swam across to the island every night to weep by her graveside. When Tomás died not long after Úna, her father allowed Tomás to be buried by the side of his love.

On the southern shore of the lake, close to the Forest Park Visitor’s Centre, lies a small stone harbour. From here we can see the ruins of a castle on a little island just off-shore. This is the aptly named Castle Island, which is recorded in the Annals of Loch Cé in the 12th century. At that time the area was called Moylurg and it was ruled by the MacDermots, who resided on Castle Island and at the site of the Moylurg Tower until the 17th century. The MacDermot residence on the island was actually a fortress called ‘Carraic Locha Cé’ or the Rock of Lough Key. Under Cromwell the MacDermot lands were given to the English King family, who renamed Moylurg as Rockingham. The Kings rebuilt the castle on Castle Island as a folly, which they used as guest accommodation until it was badly damaged by fire.

Castle Island Lough Key

Castle Island Lough Key

The River Suck Callows

Ecofact Ireland recently posted some wonderful photos of Greenland white-fronted Geese on the River Suck Callows.


Greenland white-fronted geese

Ecofact Ireland’s image from their recent wintering bird survey of the River Suck Callows

The River Suck Callows form part of the whole River Shannon system as defined by the EU Water Framework Directive. Under the terms of the Directive all EU Member States must maintain “high status” of waters where it exists, prevent any deterioration in the existing status of waters and achieve at least “good status” in relation to all waters by 2015. In Ireland, it has been decided to divide the country into eight River Basin Districts (RBD) and develop management plans for each in accordance with the Water Framework Directive.

The Shannon RBD covers the natural drainage basin of the Shannon, stretching from its source, the Shannon Pot, in the Cuilcagh Mountains in Co. Cavan, to the tip of the Dingle peninsula in north Kerry. It also includes coastal parts of Kerry and Clare, which drain to the sea. It flows through 18 local authority areas (the largest being Limerick, Clare, North Tipperary, Offaly, Westmeath, Longford and Roscommon) and is also considered an international RBD as a small portion of County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland drains underground to the Shannon Pot. What this adds up to is a significantly larger catchment than has been attributed to the Shannon in the past. The Shannon River Basin District covers around 18,000 square kilometres, mostly in the lowland central area of the Republic.

River Shannon Callows

River Shannon Callows


Callow is an anglicized version of the word ‘Caladh’, which means river meadow.  This anglicized version was used in the early 19th century to describe ‘lands liable to flood beside the River Shannon’. These callows stretch for 40km between Athlone and Portumna, where the river is broad and sluggish due to the slight gradient. During winter and spring the water level of the river rises and floods the surrounding grasslands. The grassland dries out enough during the summer to accommodate grazing and hay production.

There are 3,500 hectares of callows along that 40km stretch of river, including The Callows along the Little Brosna River, which enters the Shannon just below Victoria Lock, north of Portumna. If you include the River Suck Callows then the figure rises to 5000. The Shannon Callows are of huge importance in terms of conservation. They are home to a variety of rare and endangered plant and animal species, and an excellent example of a habitat that is becoming extremely rare throughout the world.

The grasslands of the Callows are classified as semi-natural, lowland, wet grassland (The fact that the summer meadows are grazed and eventually cut for hay is what makes this habitat ‘semi-natural’). If there was no human intervention at all, then trees such as hazel and alder would colonize, and gradually a woodland habitat would evolve. So without agriculture, the plant and animal life currently found on the Callows would no longer exist, and the Callows grasslands would cease to be. It is a rare case of productive farming and diverse wildlife not only existing in harmony, but actually dependent on one another.

Whooper Swans on the Shannon Callows at Clonmacnoise (c) Conor Cahill

Whooper Swans on the Shannon Callows at Clonmacnoise (c) Conor Cahill


For an very detailed account of The Shannon Callows see Stephen Heery’s excellent book “The Shannon Floodlands” available for purchase on the IWAI website at

Lough Derg Canoe Trail

Check out the excellent app on offer from Every Trail at

All the information you would need to plan a canoe trip on Lough Derg is offered including maps, destination guides, photos, safety tips and advice. This is only 1 of 22 Shannon Region guides courtesy of Shannon Region Trails.

Holy Island Round Tower

The monastic remains on Holy Island are well preserved and consist of six churches, a round tower, several ballaun stones, high crosses, an 8th century cemetery and holy well.

The paddle across to Holy Island from Mountshannon was one of the highlights of my trip down the Shannon. We set off from the jetty at the Lakeside Holiday Camp where our tent was pitched in an excellent waterside spot. You can hire canoes at the campsite, which we did on this occasion. If you head straight out from Lakeside towards the island you will come to an old stone jetty which is a very short stroll from the monastic site.

Feeling less adventurous? Don’t worry, Ger Madden provides a boat trip and guided tour. For details see the East Clare Heritage website

A view of Lough Derg taken from Holy Island near Mountshannon

A view of Lough Derg taken from Holy Island near Mountshannon (c) Aiveen Cooper

The Shannon Pot – Source of the River Shannon

Fellow blogger <a href=”http://Fiona Heavey mentioned to me that she is originally from the area known as The Shannon Pot. So I have decided to retrace my steps upstream and return to Log na Sionna – the source of the River Shannon.

It was November before I made it back to the Shannon Pot after my previous failed attempt (A False Start This time we stayed in Enniskillen Co. Fermanagh and drove across the border to the foot of the Cuilcagh Mountains in Co. Cavan.

We were expecting rough terrain, so dressed appropriately – hiking boots, waterproofs, layers and hats. We felt pretty silly when we discovered a signpost and a solid path. Not quite the adventure I was hoping for, but I did enjoy a nice sit down on the bench beside the Pot.

Log na Sionna, Cuilcagh Mountains, Co. Cavan

Log na Sionna, Cuilcagh Mountains, Co. Cavan

Although originally considered the source of the river, it is now thought that the water in the Shannon Pot probably comes from several different sources, flowing underground before emerging here. Water tracing experiments have shown that there are several underground streams from the Cuilcagh Mountains that flow into the Shannon Pot. One of these streams disappears underground at Pigeon Pots, over 10km away in Co. Fermanagh. From the Shannon Pot the infant Shannon, which is little more than a stream, flows southwest and is joined by waters of the River Owenmore. The Owenmore or Abbha Mór (big river) as it is called in the Annals of Lough Cé, rises in the Bellavally Hills of the Cuilcagh Mountains, and flows five miles to the west to meet the smaller stream of the infant Shannon. The small but rapid waters of the Black River join the Shannon a little further to the west below Derrynataun and the wide and fast-flowing Shannon continues to the small town of Dowra, its last stop before entering the first of the Shannon Lakes.

Lough Allen (copyright) National Monuments

An Experience in Arigna

I was surprised to hear that coal had been mined in Arigna from the 19th Century up until 1990, and this was only one of the many interesting things I learned at the Arigna Mining Experience on a miserable November day in 2010. I had driven by the sign for Arigna hundreds of times on my way to Sligo, with no idea what I was missing.

Located in Arigna on Kilronan Mountain in Co. Roscommon, the Experience opened in 2003. You can take a tour of the mine with one of the former miners and get a sense of what it was like to work in some of the narrowest coal seams in the world. A sense is all you will get as the shafts have been widened and heightened to accommodate us tourist types. The tour starts with a somewhat shaky introductory video, watched from the comfort of the cafe, and our guide appears to bring us into the mine. The tour lasts about 45 minutes and is thoroughly enjoyable and informative.

This picture shows miner Maurice Cullen cutting coal from the seam (Thanks to the Arigna Mining Experience for letting me use this in the book).


Even though it was such a gloomy day, we managed to get a nice shot of the view from the car park:

Lough Allen from Arigna

Lough Allen from Arigna

Arigna Mining Experience, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Roscommon

The Atmospheric Landscaping of Limerick

King John’s Castle, Limerick (c) fifiheavey

Blogger Fiona Heavey made her ‘virgin visit’ to Limerick recently.

She reckons that Limerick can sometimes be overlooked and goes on to point out some of the ‘atmospheric landscaping’ that the Shannon gives the city.

Do you have stories or photos from your visits to Limerick or other spots along the Shannon? Feel free to share them here.


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Buy The River Shannon: A Journey Down Ireland’s Longest River

Otters and Lady’s Tresses – Lough Allen treasures

As promised, I am returning to Lough Allen to tell you about the rare species found there. By now I hope you have all tasted the carrot cake and can understand my detour.

Rossmore, on the north shore of Lough Allen, is home to the protected plant species Irish Lady’s Tresses. It is a small orchid with white flowers that occurs in damp meadows, on lakeshores, in seasonally flooded pastures and in valley bogs in Ireland. Although not a lot is known about the ecology of the Irish Lady’s Tresses, it is generally considered to be a native Irish species, which is known to be declining and is protected in both the North of Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland.

We weren’t lucky enough to see it ourselves, so my artistic dad painted this water colour of it for the book.


The Otter is another protected species found on the shores of Lough Allen, especially at the northern end near Kilgarriff. Lutra lutra or the Eurasian Otter ranges from Ireland to Japan and from the Arctic to North Africa, and it is widespread in Ireland in all fresh-water and most coastal areas. There were dramatic declines in many European Otter populations during the latter half of the 20th Century due to hunting and habitat loss and Otters remain threatened, declining, rare, or extinct in many European countries. This means that the Irish population of the Eurasian Otter is particularly important in a worldwide context.

Thanks so much to Mike Brown for this fantastic photo

The Eurasian Otter

The Eurasian Otter

A Lough Allen Discovery

pic3.jpgOK, so Lough Allen is just beautiful. It is peaceful and serene. The time I was there we didn’t see one other boat and it felt almost undiscovered. There are rare plants and animals to be found on it’s shores, islands, mountains and harbours to explore.

But I have to tell you that the most important discovery I made at Lough Allen was none of these things.

It was carrot cake.

Jinny’s Bakery in Drumshanbo, on the southern shore of Lough Allen makes the most delicious carrot cake I have ever tasted. Don’t worry, I will come back to those rare species, but the carrot cake deserves a post of its own.

A False Start

My first research trip was to the source of the Shannon, The Shannon Pot. We loaded up the car – baby, husband, photographer friend – and made the two hour trek to Co. Cavan. The weather was pretty bad when we left Kildare, and steadily grew worse and worse the further north we got. By the time we found the car park at Log na Sionna, The Shannon Pot, the rain was so heavy we could barely see out of the car. I attempted to open my door, but the wind whipped it out of my hands and I struggled to slam it closed.

“Eh, lads, I don’t think we can get out of the car”.

It had to be me who said it, the poor lads didn’t want to suggest it. So, my first trip to the Shannon became my first trip to the lovely Slieve Russell Hotel in Co. Cavan, for a lazy lunch by the fire.

On the way home we heard on the radio that it was the windiest day on record for Belturbet Co. Cavan!

The research would have to wait for another, less windy, day.

The Shannon Pot on a slightly better day

The Shannon Pot on a slightly better day