Custume Barracks will reach the significant milestone of 100 years service to Ireland on Monday, February 28, the occasion to be marked by a military parade from Burgess Park across the town bridge through the gates of the local Defence Forces base, culminating with a flag raising ceremony in Athlone Castle.
As the oldest continuously occupied barracks in Europe, Custume Barracks has played a vital role within the community since its construction began in 1691. A permanent barracks was established on the site in 1697 when the group of buildings known as ‘Pump Square’ were constructed.
In the years leading up to the War of Independence and the takeover of the barracks there were multiple additions to the infrastructure and defensive structures in the barracks, including the construction of Grace Park Road in 1851.
In 1922 the barracks, then known as Victoria Barracks, housed a substantial British garrison, commanded by Colonel Hare. On February 28 1922 the barracks was formally handed over to Commandant General MacEoin of the Free State Army and subsequently renamed Custume Barracks in memory of Sergeant Custume, the Jacobite soldier who gave his life defending the town bridge from the Williamite army during the siege of Athlone in 1691.
The handover of the barracks was one of the seminal events of 1922. According to Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Clear the current Officer Commanding Custume Barracks, “one hundred years on, those of us serving as part of Óglaigh na hÉireann owe much to our predecessors from that era. They laid the foundations for what has been a centenary of distinguished and unbroken service at home and overseas.”
Contemporary reports of the events of that historic day record that at approximately 11am Commandant General Mac Eoin along with Colonel Commandant Cooney and Colonel Commandant Lawlor entered the Barracks and were received by Colonel Hare of the British Army.
It was also recorded that a crowd of over 20,000 people turned out to witness the withdrawal of the British Troops and the occupation of the Barracks and Castle.
“It is a very great honour for all of us involved in the ceremony to have the opportunity to commemorate these very significant events in the history of our state,” Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Clear, remarked.
To mark the centenary of this historic event the Army will recreate the events of February 28 1922 with a military parade from Burgess Park to Athlone Castle. The national flag will be raised at the castle, where local actor John McGlynn will deliver the speech made by Commandant General Mac Eoin on the day.
Athlone should come to a standstill
Reflecting on the milestone occasion to come, Athlone Deputy Mayor, Cllr Aengus O’Rourke, called on the the town of Athlone to “come to a standstill” and afford due respect to those who made freedom a reality.
“Monday, February 28, at 11am, marks the centenary of the handover of Custume Barracks from the British to the Irish national army following the War of Independence.
“When I stop to imagine what the sights, sounds and smells on the bridge of Athlone must have been like on the morning of February 28 1922, it still gives cause for a sense of deep pride.
“The sound of boots pounding purposefully across the town bridge with the proud people of Athlone looking on. Men and women, present in large numbers, to witness what was a very historic moment for our town and country.
“No doubt the air was cold and there was surely a scent of burning turf in the air from the many open fires keeping the nearby homes warm.
“Our forefathers were on the roadside soaking up the occasion. After decades of fighting, of relentless oppression and hardship, we had achieved something that many thought would never happen.
“When I reflect upon such an historic period in our nation’s history, I firmly believe that the town of Athlone should come to a standstill on Monday morning as a mark of respect to the men and women of Ireland who made our freedom possible, many of whom put their lives on the line, and in many cases, died for our independence cause so that we can today enjoy the privilege of being part of a proud republic.
“We must also afford gratitude and appreciation for the 100 years of steadfast service which Custume Barracks and its Defence Forces personnel has given to Athlone and to the many war torn countries around the world in their role as peacekeepers.
“I sincerely hope that the inhabitants of today line the town’s streets on Monday at 11am as current Defence Forces personnel based at Custume Barracks march through the centre of town to commemorate the historic handover occasion of February 28 1922.
“While the Athlone of today is a world apart from the town it was in 1922 to hear the boots march across the town bridge as they did on that occasion and to see the tricolour fly from the flagpoles, should be a very poignant occasion and a reminder of all we have to be grateful for as citizens of our great country,” Cllr O’Rourke concluded.
Anyone wishing to view the parade will be able to do so as it passes along Church Street in the heart of Athlone en route to Athlone Castle shortly before 11am.
The event will be filmed and highlights will be shared on Athlone Castle and Westmeath County Council social media channels.