The town of Athlone is at an ancient crossing point on the Shannon River, near the very centre of Ireland.
When the idea of a federal Irish Republic was floated by the political party Sinn Féin in the 1970s, Athlone was mooted as the capital of a united federal Ireland because of its central position.
The Shannon is longer than any river in Ireland, or Britain for that matter, and a mile or two up river it flows from Lough Ree, a vast lake with furrowed banks and dozens of islands.
When the summer comes the Shannon and Lough Ree have a flotilla of yachts and cruise boats, and you can amble around the shore or play a round at one of the clubs by the water.
In the town the Norman castle and Church of Saints Peter and Paul command the scene on the Shannon’s west bank.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Athlone:
1. Athlone Castle
John de Gray, the Bishop of Norwich, built Athlone Castle during the Norman Invasion of Ireland under King John at the start of the 13th century.
This tough-looking fortress was positioned here to protect a crossing point on the River Shannon.
It was reinforced several times down the years, most recently during the Napoleonic Wars when the towers were shortened to make them more resilient to cannon fire.
The most recent restoration was just a few years ago and in 2012 a modern exhibition was unveiled at the castle, with multimedia stations and 3D maps recording five millennia of history in Athlone.
You’ll step into the shoes of historic kings and generals, and hear about the bloody battles fought over these walls.
The best bit is a 360° cinematic depiction of the Siege of Athlone during the Williamite War in 1690.
2. Lough Ree
With indented shores and scores of islands, large and small, misty Lough Ree to the north is the second largest lake on the Shannon.
The scenery is awesome, under the wide open sky and on the shores that offer a habitat to migratory waterfowl, varying from woodland, to bogs and meadows for grazing sheep.
Lough Ree is also burned into Ireland’s memory as the “Lake of Kings”, where real history and legends are entwined.
Ancient kings marshalled their lands from the islands, and on Inishcleraun there was a great early-Christian monastery founded in the 6th century by St Diarmaid the Just, whose grave is on the island.
There’s endless inspiration for activities at Lough Ree, whether you’re golfing, birdwatching or hiking by the shore, or on a voyage by cruise boat, kayak, yacht or boat rental.
3. Church of Saints Peter and Paul
Another eye-catching landmark in Athlone is this neo-Baroque church just in from the west bank of the Shannon.
The Church of Saints Peter and Paul is much newer than it looks, and was only finished in the 1930s.
The bold architecture of its portico, dome and pair of Italianate towers has all been interpreted as an assertion of Irish Catholicism in the wake of independence.
The ground floor is built from white limestone from Portland in Dorset, and there are six windows by the studio of eminent stained glass painter Harry Clarke.
Some flourishes to look for inside are the replicas of Michelangelo’s Moses and Pietà, a mosaic by the Fratelli Alinari and an altar with a Baroque baldachin held up by red and white marble columns.
4. Luan Gallery
In front of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul on the Shannon, the stylish Luan Gallery is a contemporary art space that opened in 2012. The older wing of the building is the Fr Matthew Temperance Hall, erected in 1897 and previously serving as a concert hall, cinema and then the town library.
The gallery is lit by floor-to-ceiling windows and looks onto the river and marina.
Some of the more renowned artists featured here over the last six years include Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Catherina Hearne and James Hanley.
The gallery is also a platform for emerging local and national talent, hosting the RDS Student Art Awards Travelling Exhibition.
5. Sean’s Bar
No ordinary local, Sean’s Bar has been serving customers since the start of the 10th century.
This is the oldest pub in Ireland, and in 2004 was also declared the oldest pub in Europe.
Athlone is in fact named after his pub, which was initially known as Luain’s Inn.
The name is derived from “Atha Luain”, which means “Ford of Luain”. It comes from an early innkeeper on the west bank of the Shannon who also manned the river-crossing.
The pub can prove its origins as it has complete records of every owner since its inception.
The current facade is 19th-century, but when the building was restored sections of the walls were found to be built of 10th-century wattle, on display at the pub, and 10th-century coins were discovered in the foundations.
Travel down the Shannon and you’ll soon come to this ruined monastic settlement between the riverbank and the Mongan Bog.
A National Monument of Ireland, Clonmacnoise was established by St Ciarán of Clonmacnoise in 544 and grew into one of Ireland’s most important hubs of learning and religious life.
The complex today has the remains of a cathedral, seven churches, three high crosses, as well as grave slabs dating from the earliest years of Christianity in Ireland.
The building ruins have been restored in the last couple of decades and mostly date from the 10th to the 13th century.
The visitor centre has an array of carved cross slabs recovered on the site, and the star of the show is the Cross of the Scriptures, with bible motifs carved in its sandstone.
This monument was mentioned twice in the Annals of the Four Masters, in 957 and 1060.
7. Derryglad Heritage and Visitor Centre
Somewhere to get a handle on rural life in the Midlands, the Derryglad Heritage and Visitor Centre is a folk museum with more than 6,000 artefacts.
These have been collected over four decades and go back to the 18th century.
You can examine the tools of a variety of old-time trades, as well as horse-drawn machinery, tractors and household implements.
From the first half of the 20th century there are gramophones with historic 78 rpm records, cameras and photo processing equipment, radios and old hurleys (sticks for playing hurling). The park’s thatched grocery faithfully recreates the shopping experience of the 1930s, and is stocked with authentic bottles, cans and tin signs.
8. Dean Crowe Theatre
If you’re in the mood for live entertainment you can check the listings at this venue on Athlone’s left bank.
The auditorium is capacious for a town of Athlone’s size, with room for 460 spectators.
Dating back to 1800, the building used to be St Aloysius College, and before that, until 1937, it was the parish church before the Church of Saints Peter and Paul was finished.
The big date in the calendar is the RTÉ All Ireland Drama Festival at the beginning of May, but there are plays, stand-up comedy shows, music performances from classical to folk, art exhibitions and children’s events all year round.
9. Shannon Banks Nature Trail
Beginning just behind Athlone Castle, this looped path takes you along the Shannon and the old Athlone Canal for five kilometres.
Over this short distance you’ll enter a variety of ecosystems, and there are wooden footbridges where the trail enters marshland by the river.
If you’re interested in the nature along the trail there are four information boards describing the waterfowl, plants, fish and land-based animals you might see on your walk.
10. Old Rail Trail
A 42-kilometre stretch of the old Midlands Great Western Railway has been paved over, and links Athlone with the town of Mullingar in the east.
Coursing through peaceful farmland, the route is clear of hills and road traffic, perfect if you’re looking for somewhere to stroll or cycle with children.
On your ride you’ll find charming pieces of old rail infrastructure, like a tunnel, bridges and former station.
You can also take detours every few kilometres to visit villages or the Hill of Uisneach, which is steeped in Irish mythology and is covered with prehistoric barrows and cairns.
11. Meehambee Dolmen
Near the village of Bellanamullia past Athlone’s western suburbs is a megalithic portal tomb that lay hidden for thousands of years.
The Meehambee Dolmen was only discovered by two local children in the 1960s when they stumbled upon a pair of stone axes.
Most likely the burial place of a chief or king, the monument is 5,500 years old.
You have to be alert when you approach it on the bridle path as the enormous stones are camouflaged by moss and are easy to miss.
The doorstone has collapsed, causing the 25-ton capstone to slant at a 45° angle.
There are two courses on the southern shores of Lough Ree: Athlone Golf Club and Glasson Hotel and Golf Club.
But if you don’t mind a short drive you’ll find another six in the wider area.
Keeping it local, the 18-hole Athlone Golf Club is both highly-rated and reasonably priced.
Green fees are never more than €35.00 on weekdays and €40.00 on weekends.
The course has enormous greens, there isn’t a weak hole in the 18, and it’s always a pleasure to tee off with distant vistas of the lake.
The newer par-73 course at Glasson is a bit pricier, at a maximum €65.00 in the week and €70.00 on weekends.
This parkland course has a full practice area, and also benefits from that invigorating location by the water.
13. Boat Trips
Based in Athlone there’s a small directory of companies ready to take you on cruises on Lough Ree or down the Shannon.
These boats tend to run in summer and are berthed on the quay under the castle walls or just along at the marina opposite the church.
Viking Tours has a craft resembling a longboat, and from March to November sails upriver to Hodson Bay on the “Lake of Kings”, imparting fun snippets of information on the trip.
Other cruise companies operating out of Athlone are Barracuda Boat Trips, picking you up from various locations around the town, and the River Run Pleasure Cruiser, sharing titbits about the wildlife and folklore of the Shannon and Lough Ree.
If you crave a bit more freedom, companies like Lough Ree Cruisers offer boat hire, for an unforgettable day or two navigating the lake, stopping for lunch at sweet old villages.
14. Glendeer Pet Farm
Families in Athlone with smaller children should keep this animal attraction near the town in mind.
The Glendeer Pet Farm has all the breeds you’d expect to see on an Irish farm, like pigs, horses, cows, sheep, donkeys and goats.
But there are also animals you might not expect, from parrots and emus, to wallabies, monkeys, raccoons, meerkats and alpacas.
Youngsters will be given a bag of animal feed to hand out to some of the inhabitants like donkeys, goats and sheep, and are invited to hold the smaller animals like guinea pigs and chicks.
For the youngest members of the clan there’s a “Fairy Trail”, soft play area and sand barn, while older kids can be let loose on the obstacle course, which has a zip-line.
The ten-minute drive to this quaint village is worth every second.
The road climbs a little as it leaves Athlone and you can park up for dreamy views of the lake around New Forest.
Glasson isn’t much more than a hamlet but in summer people berth their boats at one of their four nearby marinas and make the short, picturesque walk up past the sheep herds for lunch at the Wineport Lodge, Glasson Village Restaurant or Grogan’s Bar and Restaurant.
The Glasson Country House and Golf Club has its own small harbour, allowing you to go straight from the water to the fairways.