Legend has it that when the White Bull of Connaught was tearing apart the Brown Bull of Cooley, pieces of the bull landed all around the country and placenames were born. So the name Áth Luain, charmingly, refers to the place where the bull’s loins landed. Yes – Athlone is the ‘Place of the Loins’. Sounds vacationable to me!
Athlone is situated more or less in the middle of the island of Ireland – an ancient fording spot on the river Shannon – Ireland’s main inland navigation route. It is, therefore, more known in naval terms moreso than for its loins … (ahem …)
I was back in town on business – as, indeed, I had been many times before. This time, however, I had a little time to kill and promised myself that I’d venture out into the town and see some of it. I had spent the previous night in the tower at the Sheraton – the tallest building in town. Now, in most countries, the view would be impressive. It is possible to see for miles in all directions – lush farmland appearing as a patchwork quilt, tall forests reduced to window-moss. Lough Ree – a large lake by any standards – a distant glimmer on my panorama. The problem is, however, that this is Ireland. A room with a view in the Irish midlands simply means that you know ten minutes beforehand when it’s going to rain. I spent the morning getting some work done as three sets of rain clouds came and went. The view from the tower told me that I had at least ten minutes of dryness. Time for exploring.
A little down the road, I pass St. Mary’s church – a site that had long appeared on my ‘Oh – I must look at that someday’ list. I had always appreciated something of its charm – a late medieval relic in a modern part of town replete with crumbling graveyard and meaningless tower. I take a quick tramp amongst the tombstones to get a sense of the place. Soon, I am standing at the base of the tower. There is a sign on it – presumably erected by the tourist people. Great! Time to find out what famous person was buried here.
Oliver Goldsmith has earned a rightful place in the pantheon of Irish Writers – arguably one of the finest writers not just of the 18th century – but of any. And yes – the sign mentions him … but it is not he who is buried here …
The sign instead references ‘Dean Goldsmith’. Now who is Dean Goldsmith? Dean Goldsmith was a cousin of Oliver’s – or so the sign tells me. Was he also a famous writer, I hear you ask? No. Not to my knowledge. The sign, instead, simply references him as Oliver’s cousin… So Athlone has a sign up to commemorate a man who wasn’t famous in his own right, but who was simply the cousin of someone who was??
Sadly, no. It’s not even that exciting. The full text of the sign reads:
“Inside this tower was interred
30th September 1769,
the wife of Dean Goldsmith, Cousin of
Oliver Goldsmith, poet, Essayist and Playwright.”
I have to read this sign three or four times. Are they really honouring someone who was married to the cousin of someone famous?? Yes, it seems. They are. And what’s worse – the sign doesn’t even mention her name. Words fail me …
I decide to move on.
In hindsight, I should have expected something like this. The next stop on my grand tour of Athlone is the main town bridge – linking not only two halves of the town across the Shannon – but linking the two provinces of Leinster and Connaught. I had looked up a little information on the bridge before I began my tour and learned that the bridge was designed by Thomas Rhodes, “Cousin of the famous Cecil Rhodes …” What is it with Athlone and fame by proxy?
Across the bridge, I encounter Athlone Castle – a beast of a medieval affair that would look more at home looking down on the beaches of Normandy in the 1940s than gracing the banks of Ireland’s premier waterway. I enter the rather impressively-restored site and begin to look around. It becomes clear that the castle had little to do with the town. It was a garrison fort for most of its existence. Around it, the town went about its own business of pipe making, whiskey distilling and other such local crafts. Indeed, the castle museum is filled with little reminders and artifacts from the everyday life of the townsfolk. In fact, very little at all survives from the authorities that ruled from the castle. The one tangible artifact left over from them is rather gruesome: a man-trap used for catching poachers. Indeed, this being Athlone, I suspect that the trap was also used to catch not only poachers, but their wives and cousins too …
I figure that I have time for one more site on my day in Athlone. Athlone did actually have an extraordinarily famous son. Count John McCormack, arguably the world’s most famous tenor in the early 20th century, was born in this town. Given the tributes and the lengths that Athlonians go to in order to celebrate those who are vicarious celebrities, I’m expecting great things. I’m expecting at least a twenty foot statue that sings recordings of McCormack’s music on a permanent basis. Or maybe an obelisk pointing to the heavens of which McCormack so famously sang. Who knows? There might even be a throng of American tourists breaking into tears as they visit the birthplace of the man who popularized that most Irish of Irish songs, ‘Danny Boy’.
To say that I am underwhelmed by what I find would be an understatement. I do not find a statue. I do not find a tower. And there are no American tears forming the newest tributary of the mighty Shannon. Instead, I find a Chinese restaurant … and a sign that informs me that John McCormack was born here …
It takes me a while to contemplate this. Why has Athlone chosen to celebrate those who are related – however distantly – to famous people but not put as much thought into remembering those who were, themselves, famous? I guess that in Athlone – it’s not what you know – but who. Dean Goldsmith’s wife clearly knew someone famous. John McCormack clearly didn’t – and that’s what counts around here.
That in mind, I retire for the rest of the evening to Sean’s Bar – hoping that my name will prove enough of an intangible link to result in a free glass of whiskey or two and to allow me space to contemplate my day of loins, of mantraps and of miscommemoration.