Straddling the Shannon at its midpoint, ATHLONE is the bustling capital of the Midlands and an important road and rail junction. It probably derives its name from the Táin Bó Cúailnge, in which the remains of the white bull of Connacht, the Findbennach, after its defeat by Ulster’s brown bull, are scattered throughout Ireland; its loins came to rest here at Áth Luain, the “Ford of the Loins”. A bridge was first built over this ford in 1120 by Turlough O’Connor, king of Connacht, which was replaced by a stone bridge by the Anglo-Normans in 1210, who were also responsible for the mighty castle. The latter still casts a formidable shadow over Athlone, having weathered some bloody fighting during the Cromwellian Wars and the War of the Kings of the seventeenth century. Today, the town supports an important college, the Athlone Institute of Technology, as well as various civil-service offices and high-tech firms, but its main function for tourists is as a jumping-off point for the monastic site of Clonmacnois. Fewer visitors know about the Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre, but the evocative, 2000-year-old wooden road preserved here is also well worth a visit.
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