981125_1165369713492855_7752979769398247480_oWESTMEATH V ROSCOMMON
The suggestion that Roscommon could lose up to 10% of its population and significant territory to Westmeath is causing huge anger among Roscommon folk. This is not surprising. In Ireland county identity runs very deep.

Our counties may be a legacy of English rule,but people still cherish their county deeply. It took Irish emigrants in America a very long time to see themselves as Irish rather than as Corkonians,Dubliners,Mayomen etc.

What makes the possible annexation of parts of Roscommon to a Greater Westmeath (or Greater Athlone) even more galling for the Rossies is the fact that such an annexation would also put proud Connaught men and women into the Province of Leinster.

The four provinces of Ireland retain very distinct identities even in our overcentralised state today and they go back an immense distance in time. Ireland had four provinces even when St Patrick came here 1600 years ago (and there was also a fifth province-Mide,for many centuries until around 1210.

The boundaries between the provinces have shifted over time,it is true,but the provinces have been there since at least the start of the first millennium AD.
The Greater Westmeath suggestion is not,of course,the first time that one county or province has tried to take over the territory of another. The boundaries of Connacht extended into what is now Westmeath in the period just before the Christian era and possibly included the Sacred Centre of Ancient Ireland-the Hill of Uisneach.

Then the Kingdom/Province of Mide emerged and would come to embrace Westmeath and other parts of the Kingdom of Leinster.The Ui Neill tribes from Connacht conquered the Midlands and also pushed back the ,Kingdom of Uladh/ Ulster to east of the River Bann.

The Leinster Bridge just east of Clonard in Meath is a reminder of the fact that the Midlands was lost to Leinster for some 700 years (515-1210).
By the 11th century the power of Mide was in decline and after 1022 they no longer were High Kings of Ireland. Now it was the turn of Connacht to try to claim the High Kingship.

The formidable O Connor kings from modern Roscommon swept through what is now Westmeath and Meath,plundering and burning. It was the O Connor kings who built the first bridge of Athlone and also erected the first castle there in the early 12th century. The last Gaelic High King of Ireland was Rory O Connor.

The 12th century also saw the creation of Dioceses by the Roman Catholic Church. The Shannon was already the boundary between two province/kingdoms. Now it also became the boundary between two dioceses. The Leinster part of what would become Athlone was in Ardagh/Clonmacnoise (though Clonmacnoise and Ardagh were actually seperate dioces for a number of centuries),while the Connacht side became part of Elphin.

Although a future reduction in the number of RC dioceses seems likely, it is not likely that Ardagh will be extended across into Roscommon-although Meath might in time annexe Ardagh.! (The Church of Ireland Diocese of Meath and Kildare includes Athlone).

The arrival of the Normans saw the creation of parishes and counties. Athlone began to grow as two urban settlements developed on either side of the river. Counties began to appear in the 13th century. Roscommon is older than Westmeath and was the site of the Norman castle built around 1210.

A town grew up in the shadow of the castle and a Cluniac monastery nearby. The most important town in the area at this time was not ,however Athlone but Rindoon,further north along the Roscommon shore of Lough Ree. Even now the remains of the town wall and the castle of Rindoon give a sense of how imposing a place Rindoon was in the 13th/14th centuries.

Had it not gone into decline,Rindoon-entirely in Roscommon then and ever since,might have become thhe major strategic town along the Midlands stretch of the Shannon,rather than Athlone !.

But Rinddon declined and Athlone grew. It was the base for the Norman expansion into Connaught which ended the rule of the O Connor kings. In the 16th century,as the Tudor rulers of England sought to conquer and control Ireland,Athlone became the political and military capital of Connaught in 1569 when the Presidency of Connaught was set up with its HQ in Athlone Castle.

For the next 113 years-until the abolition of the presidency,the power of Athlone extended not just across all Roscommon but as far as the Aran islands and Sligo Bay and Clifden.

It is probably not surprising that Athlone began to get imperial ambitions! In 1600,English Lord Deputy Mountjoy,after a visit to the castle even suggested to Queen Elizabeth 1 that Athlone should be made the capital of Ireland because of its strategic location.

At this stage the Roscommon side was still the most important side of Athlone.The Leinster town became part of the newly created county of Westmeath in 1542 but the new county town was not Athlone but Mullingar,which occupied a more central location in the county. From the Leinster shore the Williamite Army besiged and captured Jacobite held Athlone and swept into Connaught in 1691.

A few years later the Roscommon side of Athlone gained a new importance with the building of a new military barracks-what is now Custume Barracks-one of the oldest surviving military bases in Europe.

In the 18th and 19th centuries Athlone began to grow and expand on both the Westmeath and Roscommon sides of the Shannon. A Corporation ruled the town until the 1840s and Athlone was represented in the Irish parliament and after the Union in the UK parliament.

In the 1840s,the Corporation was replaced by a Town Commission.The Commission governed the old medieval heart of the town on both sides of the Shannon but,at this stage Athlone remained divided between two counties,with the landlord run Grand Juries of Roscommon and Westmeath looking after roads,drainage and other issues in the outlying districts of Athlone

The two Roman Catholic dioceses remained proudly independent of each other,building fine churches and schools in their own parts of Athlone.

The setting up of county councils and urban district councils in 1898 began the problems which are causing so much grief today to Roscommon. Athlone was upgraded to Urban District Council status (unlike the Westmeath County town of Mullingar which remained a mere Town Commission and was not a rating authority.

It was at this point that Westmeath began its expansion across the river into Connacht and Roscommon. Probably for reasons of administrative tidyness it was decided to put all of urban Athlone into County Westmeath. Now Connaught Street and other parts of Roscommon Athlone including the castle and barracks came under the authority of Westmeath County Council.

The annexation of Roscommon had begun. (in a similar way Co Armagh lost part of Newry when the Armagh parts of that town were put into Down County Council.

In the 1930s,a strange Dail constituency called Athlone-Longford was created which included a large chunk of Roscommon. Roscommon councillors were furious at this move. One councillor declared that “Connaught men will never be Leinster men.” Another councillor stated that “Cromwell said “To hell or to Connaught. Now we are being told “To hell or to Leinster.”! The trans-provincial constituency lasted a while but was eventually abolished.

In the century since Athlone-Leinster was amalgamated with Athlone-Connaught the town has grown.Country fields that clearly lay beyond the urban areas are now sprawling suburbs. With the abolition of Athlone Town Council and its autonomy,power has moved further -much further-away from the Roscommon Athlone people.

It is not surprising that people who follow Roscommon GAA and Connaught rugby feel a deep anger at the prospect of being taken into a different county and province. The Shannon is,as we all learned at school,Ireland’s biggest river.

The idea that one county can be spread out across both sides of this mighty river makes little sense.Westmeath may want Roscomon like President Putin wants Crimea- and Athlone may dream of becoming a sort of city state. But local loyalties run deep and should not be lightly tampered with.

In Britain in the 1970s ancient counties were abolished or amalgamated in the name of administrative improvement. Some of these counties have now reappeared and it is likely that the huge drop in voter turnout in local elections has something to do with people feeling no connection to remote authorities in distant towns . Athlone can be a city with its present county boundaries.

Westmeath is a fine proud Leinster County and has no need of parts of Connaught. Personally,I believe that,whatever the Report on Alan Kelly’s desk suggests,the borders will remain as they are. Or perhaps all of urban Athlone could be transferred to Roscommon instead.Better of all will be for Athlone to stay the unique place it is-one town in two counties,two provinces and three dioceses.