Custume Barracks Before Independence

A view of Athlone Barracks in the late nineteenth century. The ‘water-gate’, which provided the barracks with easy access to the Shannon, can be seen in the bottom-right of the photo. (Aidan Heavey Public Library, Athlone)

In this edition of our blog, we will look at Custume Barracks in Athlone, a location that played a vital role in Westmeath during the War of Independence, 1919-1921.

This will be the first of a few posts about the barracks and the activities of the British army in Westmeath during the conflict. First, however, we will take some time to discuss the history of the barracks and explain its place in Westmeath’s history and society, particularly with regard to Athlone and its locality.

1691 and all that

The story of Custume Barracks can be said to begin with the ending of a war. In 1691, Ireland was a significant theatre in a wider European conflict and, for three years, there had been fighting between the Jacobite army, mostly composed of Irish Catholics loyal to King James II, and the Williamite Army, a multi-national force fighting for William of Orange. After the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the Williamites had besieged Athlone but had been repulsed by a Jacobite army in which Colonel Richard Grace had played a decisive part. In 1691, however, the Williamite army returned to Athlone determined to take the town – a feat they achieved after a great battle.

After capturing Athlone, the Williamite army won a victory at Aughrim, taking Galway and Limerick soon after. The Treaty of Limerick, signed in October 1691, led to the disbandment of the Jacobite army and what became known as the Flight of the Wild Geese, as Irish leaders such as Patrick Sarsfield, along with soldiers and their families, left Ireland. A new phase in the history of Ireland had begun and it was also a new phase in the history of Athlone. Its position in the centre of Ireland, on the border between Leinster and Connaught, made it a strategically important hub for communications and logistics. The conquering Williamite army fortified the town as a base for their future operations, housing a few regiments of troops in a series of wooden huts on the west side of the river, on the grounds of what would become Custume Barracks. It is from this time that the modern barracks can trace its beginnings. 

Athlone was then, and would remain for over two hundred years, a garrison town for the British army. Yet the garrison in Athlone remained small throughout the 1700s, comprising a few units of cavalry and a handful of infantry companies. During the closing decades of the century and into the 1800s, Britain became obsessed with the threat of revolutionary France and the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte. The British were well aware that Athlone would be a prized possession in the event of a French invasion and the barracks was greatly expanded between 1784 and 1815.

In tandem with the growth of the barracks, Athlone Castle was also redeveloped during the early 19th century, with the work completed by around 1827. It was during that period that a massive series of artillery emplacements were built on the west side of the Shannon. These guns, known as the batteries, formed part of a vast defensive structure linked by sunken pathways of which only fragments now remain. The barracks would undergo further development in the early 1850s, as a consequence of the arrival of the railway to Athlone.

Join the army, see the world

Those changes transformed both the barracks and the town and they also helped to integrate the garrison into the locality to a degree that had not been the case previously. While the barracks played a role, sometimes formative, in various social activities, particularly in sports and music, its primary role remained as a garrison and recruitment centre for the British army. Many locals who joined the British army in Athlone would serve across the British Empire, especially in India.

Consider the words of William Magan, who grew up near Athlone in the early twentieth century and who was later a leading figure in British military intelligence during the Cold War. He judged that the presence of a large military garrison, and its strong connections to exotic and far-flung locations had a profound effect on the local population, especially men of military age who saw in the barracks an opportunity to travel, in a literal sense, but also in the sense of career development. Magan recalled, in his memoir, An Irish Boyhood: ‘In such a British garrison town as Athlone it would have been impossible to escape the influence of India. Those were the great days of the Empire, of which India was the greatest part, and there were many in the garrison, and in the vicinity of Athlone, who served there.’

The Connaught Rangers, for example, spent long periods stationed in India throughout the 19th Century and many men from Athlone and the surrounding area served with the regiment. Of course, Athlone was not the only recruitment station for the British army in the area and many locals travelled to Ballinasloe and Galway to enlist. It must be noted that, in so doing, they were joining an army whose primary purpose was the defence of British hegemony. This involved the regular suppression of revolts against, and challenges to, British power. A number of Athlone soldiers, including some who served in Athlone barracks, played a wholehearted role in such dark episodes as the British army’s brutal response to the Indian mutiny of 1857.

Change is coming

The soldiers stationed in Athlone Barracks, named Victoria Barracks during the nineteenth century, were also deployed in Ireland. Nineteenth century newspapers contain reports of the garrison aiding the police in conducting evictions and the army was active in supporting official attempts to disrupt the activities of the Land League during the Land War of 1879-1882. Yet, by the 1900s the barracks was an integral part of the town. The Empire, of which it was a part and on which the sun supposedly never set, seemed destined to last long into the future. But Irish history and the history of the British Empire would be irrevocably changed by the cataclysm into which the great powers dragged the world in 1914. The road to the First World War and the Irish role in that conflict has long been debated and discussed but those topics remain outside the scope of this blog. Our focus will be on the period that emerged after the First World War.

The War of Independence marked the lowest point in the history of the relationship between the people of Athlone and the soldiers within the barracks. During the autumn and winter of 1920, the barracks facilitated attacks by the Crown forces upon the social and economic fabric of the town – a series of events that shocked and terrified the people of Westmeath. In a later blog, we will discuss those extraordinary events.

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 08/09/2020