Athlone is located close to the geographical centre of Ireland, on the border of two counties, Roscommon and Westmeath, which are located in the provinces of Connacht and Leinster respectively. Although the River Shannon, which runs through the town, forms the historic border between County Roscommon and County Westmeath, the Local Government Act of 1898 designated most of the town as belonging to Westmeath, including areas west of the river. Much recent growth has occured outside the official town boundaries. Monksland for example, a suburb on the west side of the town, is not within the official town boundaries, yet is the most populous area of County Roscommon.
Athlone is the largest town in central Ireland; the 2006 Census having placed the population of the town and its environs at 17,544. This rises to approximately 35,000 within a 3 mile radius of the town. The town has also been described as "the commercial capital of the Irish midlands" The town is governed by an elected town council which elects a Mayor.
At the heart of Athlone, both geographically and historically, is the castle. The ford of Athlone was strategically important, as south of Athlone the Shannon is impassable until Clonmacnoise (where the Esker Riada meets the Shannon), and north is Lough Ree. In 1001 Brian Bóru led his army from Kincora into the town, his fleet sailing up the river via Lough Derg to attend a gathering.
A bridge was built across the river in the 12th century, approximately 100 metres south of the current bridge. To protect this a fort was constructed on the west bank in the town by Turloch Mór Ó Conor. On a number of occasions both the fort and bridge were subject to attacks, and towards the end of the 12th century the Anglo-Normans constructed a motte-and-bailey fortification here. This was superseded by a stone structure built in 1210 by Justiciar John Gray. The 12-sided donjon dates from this time. The rest of the castle was largely destroyed during the Siege of Athlone and subsequently rebuilt and enlarged.
During the wars that racked Ireland in the seventeenth century, Athlone held a vital position, holding the main bridge over the River Shannon into Connacht. In the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–1653), the town was held by Irish Confederate troops until it was taken late in 1650 by Charles Coote, who attacked the town from the west, having crossed into Connacht at Sligo.
Forty years later, during the Williamite war in Ireland, the town was again of central strategic importance, being one of the Jacobite strongholds on the defending their position after they had retreated west after the battle of the Boyne. At the first battle of Athlone in 1690 the Jacobite forces of Colonel Richard Grace repelled an attack by 10,000 men lead by Commander Douglas. The following year the Siege of Athlone saw a further assault in which the troops of King William III eventually prevailed against the outnumbered defenders.
There are three theatres in Athlone, The Dean Crowe Theatre and Arts Centre , The Little Theatre, and Passionfruit Theatre Company The RTÉ All-Ireland Drama Festival takes place annually in Athlone, and brings together 9 amateur drama groups from across Ireland. The festival is supported by an active fringe which involves street theatre, art exhibitions, workshops and events for young people. Home to the famous "Skinsize Kings"
Given its central location, Athlone is a natural hub for transport, with frequent bus and rail schedules. Athlone railway station, which opened on 3 October 1859, services the main Galway to Dublin and Dublin to Westport/Ballina lines. Bus Eireann, the national bus operator, operates from beside the train station and covers most towns and cities in the country, including an hourly service to Dublin and Galway. Other private operators also provide services to some towns and cities. Bus Éireann also operates a local Athlone bus service. The town is also home to a number of privately operated services, including the Flagline bus company. Taxi service is widely available throughout the area.
The town is situated on the N6 road connecting Galway to Dublin with various smaller roads connecting from other areas. The new M6 motorway now connects the town directly to Dublin, cutting traveling and commuting time considerably.
The River Shannon runs through Athlone and the town is a popular spot for people passing through on pleasure craft, many of whom stop off at the Marinas. Lough Ree, the largest lake on the Shannon, is a short distance upstream from Athlone to the North of the town, and is popular among anglers, birdwatchers, and swimmers. The lake shore is easily accessed from Coosan Point, and Hodson Bay. The town is also home to Lough Ree Yacht Club, whose clubhouse is located on the promenade. The promenade is also a popular spot for anglers.
Athlone is the main retail centre in the Midlands, and Golden Island Shopping Centre attracts shoppers from a wide radius. There was also the smaller Texas Shopping Centre (formerly known as Athlone Shopping Centre, prior to being acquired by the Texas department store chain). Another large scale development opened on November 1st, 2007. Athlone Town Centre comprises two internal streets, with 54 shops and a hotel, and is the largest shopping and leisure centre in Ireland, outside Dublin.
Athlone Regional Sports Centre is a facility (established May 2002) developed by the Town Council.
Other popular attractions for visitors are the Glendeer Open Farm and the Viking Cruise of the Shannon. The town's tourist office is located at Athlone Castle, in the town centre.
Athlone's major employers include companies such as Élan (pharmaceuticals), which originated in Athlone, Bioclin Laboratories (pharmaceuticals), Ericsson (telecommunications), Tyco Healthcare (medical equipment), Alcatel (cables), Utah Medical (medical equipment), Pharmaplaz (pharmaceuticals), Alienware (computer hardware), (ICT Eurotel (contact centre), and Athlone Extrusions (polymers).
Athlone is the regional centre for a large number of state and semi-state organisations. The Department of Education & Science, The State Examinations Commission, Revenue Commissioners, FÁS Midlands Region, Bus Éireann, Iarnród Éireann, IDA Ireland, and Enterprise Ireland all have bases in the town. Athlone is also a major military centre, Custume Barracks on the West bank of the Shannon is the headquarters of the Western Command of the Irish Army.
Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) is the regional third level college. Athlone forms part of the ill fated Midlands Gateway, or triangle as it became known, along with Mullingar and Tullamore. Alongside Waterford's Institute of Technology, AIT harbours ambitions of attaining university status, as there is no institution providing university-level education in the Irish Midlands.
Between 1931 and 1975 the main radio transmission centre for Irish radio was located at Moydrum, Athlone. The original call-sign was 2RN (a wordplay on the song "Come back to Erin"). It subsequently became known as "Radio Athlone" and could clearly be heard throughout Europe, and as far as Moscow. This changed as bandwidth allocations were accorded at the Treaty of Helsinki.
It operated at a power of 60 kW (further increased to 100 kW in the 1950s). Many old radio sets in Europe had the "Athlone" dial position marked near the end of their tuning scales.
In the late 1970s the station reopened on a new dial position of 612 kHz for "Radio 2" (later known as RTÉ 2fm).
Moydrum was also the location of Ireland's short lived Shortwave international radio service that was closed down in 1948 due to lack of money.
A new radio station i107fm is scheduled to open in 2007. This station will be geared to the 18-34 age group in the midlands and north-east.
And again in affirmation of Athlone's broadcasting roots yet another station is about to be launched on a nationwide basis, using the 612 kHz band, with a Christian emphasis.
As well as this the Athlone Community Taskforce and several members of Roscommon community radio station RosFM have begun broadcasting from the Athlone area under the banner of the Athlone Community Radio on 101.6fm. The first broadcast was the 15th of March 2008 and is set to run every Saturday and Sunday for the following 15 weeks until the end of the temporary license they received.
As well as having a Regional Sports Centre, Athlone has a variety of sporting organisations:
Recently announced was the decision that Athlone will host the European Triathlon Championships in 2010. This is expected to bring 5,000 athletes for the event.
Athlone is twinned with Chateaubriant, France. Student exchanges take place between Athlone and Chateaubriant on a regular basis. Student exchanges also take part between Athlone and the German towns of Ludwigshafen am Rhein and Menden although they are not twinned.