IWAI - The Shell Guide to the River Shannon
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Early modern times

Harman Murtagh

The Shannon continued to influence Irish history from Tudor times when it was frequently used as an important line of defence. When more settled times gradually became established, some of the new ascendancy began to take up residence along its shores.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a period of upheaval and change in Ireland. Traditionally depicted in terms of military conquest, confiscations, colonisation and Reformation, what was taking place can also be viewed as the forceful modernisation of a highly conservative and even archaic society. The eighteenth century, in contrast was a more settled era, at least until its final decades were disturbed by the impact of revolution. These developments naturally influenced the contemporary history of the Shannon and the evolution of settlement patterns in its adjoining countryside, towns and villages.

Tudor Times
Tudor administrators were impressed by the potential of the waterway. Sir Francis Walsingham, secretary of state to Queen Elizabeth I, was told of 'the commodious havens and harbours, the beauty and commodity of this river of Shannon'. In 1571 a water bailiff was appointed and given two galleys to 'scour' the river, one to be based above and the other below Athlone; 'boats, cots, wherries and other vessels' were also mentioned at this time. By 1580 the navigation between Athlone and Limerick had been 'found out' and the Shannon was an important artery of communication in the savage conquest of Munster.

Even before this, Connacht was opened up to government control by the building of a new stone bridge across the river at Athlone and the old medieval castle there was adapted as a headquarters for the new provincial administration. The number of crossing-points increased as a succession of further stone bridges were erected in the centuries that followed: that at Shannonbridge, which has recently been renovated, dates from 1757.

An early print of Athlone Castle Jacobite Wars
The concept of the river as a barrier between competing armies evolved during the confused wars of the confederacy and Cromwellian conquest, 1641—53, and reached its fullest expression a generation later in the Jacobite war when, in 1690—1, the Irish army doggedly defended Connacht and Clare from behind the line of the Shannon. Athlone and Limerick were each beseiged twice and smaller centres, such as Lanesborough, Jamestown and Boyle, were also the scenes of military engagement. The reverse strategy was adopted during the conflict with revolutionary France, 1793—1815, when the government of the day strongly fortified the middle-Shannon crossings, with the idea of confining any newly landed French force in the west until the defending army could be mustered from its numerous garrisons east of the river to confront the invaders. Town wall fortifications of the seventeenth century can be seen at Jamestown, Athlone and Limerick, and the extensive defences of the Napoleonic era are still substantially intact at Meelick, Banagher and Shannonbridge.

An axiometrical drawing and plan of Shannonbridge fortifications (Paul Kerrigan) The New Ascendancy
In the wake of conquest came settlement. In the 1620s there were formal plantation schemes in Leitrim, Longford and Offaly, which saw the development of new urban centres such as Jamestown, Lanesborough and Banagher. Older towns like Limerick and Athlone also revived and expanded. In general the new settlers preferred more comfortable and well-lit 'horizontal' residences to living in the grim vertical towers of late medieval Ireland, and the new styles they introduced were imitated by the older inhabitants. However, the insecurity of the times meant that the new houses were often fortified, so that they represent a transitional style. Examples can be seen at Cootehall, Athlone (Court Devenish) and, most spectacularly, Portumna. Two older tower houses,which were 'modernised', are Rathcline and Portlick on Lough Ree.

Shannonbridge: the bridge was constructed in the 1750s (Photo: Ruth Delany)

The Cromwellian and Williamite victories greatly consolidated the position of the new ascendancy and gave them the confidence and resources to erect on their estates numerous unfortified residences in the classical idiom. Two early examples, close to the Shannon, are at Eyrecourt and neighbouring Clonfert, both dating from the late seventeenth century and now sadly dilapidated. Rockingham, the magnificent Nash villa overlooking Lough Key, which was built for the King family about 1810, has been totally demolished. But, in nearby Boyle, an earlier house of the Kings, probably to the design of Sir Edward Lovett Pearce or his assistant, William Halfpenny, survives from about 1730 and has recently been handsomely restored. Other notable examples of classical villas on the river are Drominagh, Castlelough, Bellevue, Belle Isle and Youghal on Lough Derg, and Killinure and the ruined Mount Plunkett on Lough Ree. In the centre of Carrick-on-Shannon, the well-maintained Hatley Manor, dating from about 1830, marks the transition to a new era: the street front is in the older classical style whereas the garden front is neoGothic. The handsome courthouse nearby, by the architect William Farrell, is slightly earlier in date and would benefit from conservation. The magnificent battlomonted Castle Forbes, on the shores of Lough Forbes, dating from about 1830 is one of the finest examples of neo-Gothic romanticism in the country. Splendid mid- to late- nineteenth-century villas on Lough Derg are Tinarana, the Italianate Slevoir near Terryglass, and Kilteelagh, a well-maintained example of high-Victorian style. Of the Shannon towns, the city of Limerick has, after Dublin, the most important classical streetscapes in the country, and much of the architecture of the smaller centres retains a Georgian or Victorian flavour.

The ruined Abbey on Trinity Island, Lough Key (Photo: Walter Borner) The End Of The Monastic Period
A direct consequence of the Reformation was the dissolution of the Shannon’s numerous monastic houses. Their buildings were demolished, or simply fell into decay, and the remainder of their property (with much of the other endowment of the medieval church) passed to laymen. But the Counter-Reformation, which the Franciscans spearheaded in the midlands, ensured that the majority of the population kept the old faith. In 1631 the Poor Clare nuns founded the first post-Reformation convent in Ireland at a remote site, which they named Bethlehem, on the shores of Lough Roe. Shortly afterwards the Franciscans established a new house in the plantation town of Jamestown. In 1648 Cardinal Rinuccini, who was being rowed upstream from Shannonbridge to Athlone, broke his journey to view the ancient churches of Clonmacnois, where he was entertained to breakfast by the resident Franciscan bishop. A generation later, in the 1680s, the Franciscans commenced the building of a new church in Athlone, but the work had to be abandoned in the wake of the Williamite victory in 1691. However, Roman Catholic parish churches were erected in growing numbers from 1750 onwards and there are numerous nineteenth and twentieth-century examples, large and small, along the river.

For the Church of Ireland, the Board of First Fruits was responsible for the construction of many handsome parish churches and globe houses, especially between 1800 and 1830. Of several on the Shannon, perhaps the most strikingly situated is Annaduff, near Drumsna, in Co Leitrim.

Early Pleasure Boating
The use of the waterway for recreation is recorded as early as 1731, when there is a reference to a regatta at Athlone and to musical evenings 'on the delightful River Shannon, which was made infinitely more so by the company of the ladies'. The date 1770 is claimed for the foundation of Lough Ree Yacht Club, which makes it the second oldest in the world. Lough Derg Yacht Club, dating from about 1836, is also amongst the most senior in the country. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, prior to the invention of motor cars, an essential requirement of watersports enthusiasts was lakeside accommodation. One solution was the erection of lodges, around which the landscape was generally improved by the planting of trees. Today, those residences are among the most attractive on the great lakes.


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