Heritage sites of Co. Westmeath

Church of Saints Peter and Paul (RC), Athlone

Built between 1932 and 1939 in a Baroque Revival style, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Athlone was designed by architect Ralph Henry Byrne (b. Rathmines 1877, d. Ballsbridge 1946). Byrne was also responsible for the Cathedral of Christ the King (1931) in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, and the Church of the Four Masters in Donegal town, both of which celebrate Irish materials and craftsmanship.

This massive and extensively detailed church is a monumental statement on the confidence, power and the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland in the first decades after Independence.

National Inventory of Architectural Heritage

The exterior is of Ballyknockan granite ashlar on ground levels to a height of 30 feet and grey Mississippian limestone above. The columns in the Doric entrance portico, the entablature and moulded cornices are in Portland Stone. The steps leading to the entrance and the pavers outside the entrance are of Ballyknockan granite also.

Connemara Marble columns from Streamstown, near Clifden, of three to six drums tall on black Merlin Park polished limestone bases dominate the interior. 12 tapering circular (cross section) columns line the nave while 4 square columns stand in the chancel. 120 tons of green marble in rough form was taken from the Streamstown quarry and columns were turned and polished by Irish Marble Industries Ltd. at their works at Merlin Park under the direction of Capt. Waithman. Each upper drum had an indented margin at its base that fitted into the recessed top of the lower drum, and a central hole that probably carried a tie. Galway black Merlin Park fossiliferous limestone, containing large brachiopods and colonial corals, was used for paneling.

While using some decorative stone there was an over reliance on Connemara marble, probably because many Irish coloured stone sources were no longer available in the 1930s.

Exotic Italian marble was employed for the majority of elements in the chancel, including the main altar, the twisted columns, the chancel floor and the communion rail. A side chapel dedicated to St Brigid has pilasters of Connemara Marble and replicas of round towers also in Connemara marble.

Stained glass includes six works from the Harry Clarke Studio and one by Sarah Purser.

Further reading:

Geology of Co. Westmeath

The very oldest rocks in the county are marine sandstones of Silurian age, about 425 Ma, found around the summit of Sion Hill, north of Killucan. Younger rocks, of Devonian age around 400 Ma, are also found on Sion Hill and further west in low hills near Moate. These sandstones and conglomerates, with some volcanic ash layers, were deposited on a low flood plain.

The dominant rock types in Westmeath belong to the early part of the Carboniferous, between about 360 and 330 Ma. At that time the region was covered by a shallow tropical sea (Ireland was just south of the Equator then). The sea teemed with life, with animal communities changing as sea levels changed. Also different marine environments formed different types of limestone. Carbonate mud banks or “reefs” (Waulsortian Limestones) developed as upstanding mounds on the sea floor across parts of Westmeath (and much of the Midlands of Ireland). Growth of these mounds was probably due to the rapid accumulation of fine carbonate mud produced by unknown organisms. A rich fauna and varying micro-organisms lived on the mounds. In other parts deeper water basins had what is known as Calp limestone. This developed from occasional flows of limey sediments from shallow water into the basins, with quiet periods of mud sedimentation in between each flow event. This leads to beds of regular limestone separated by thin black shale layers.

Carboniferous limestones are often easily dissolved by surface water or groundwater. This has resulted in the development of many karst features involving underground drainage especially in the Fore area (Seven Springs). Isolated hills, like the Rock of Curry and Hill of Uisneach, are thought to be residual tower karst landscapes (like that seen today in parts of China and SE Asia). Lough Funshinagh, although not a turlough, has been known to drain away completely several times!

The last development occurred during the last 1.6 million years when ice ages came and went. The last one ended about 10,000 years ago, giving Westmeath some of the finest glacial deposits of sand and gravel across the lowlands. Eskers (the international name for these features comes from the Irish name: eiscir) formed throughout the county from rivers flowing beneath the ice, leaving a long narrow ridge of sand and gravel. Around 10% of the county is covered by eskers and even more by associated outwash deposits of sand and gravel where the rivers emerged from beneath the ice.

The final stage of landscape evolution has been the growth in the last 10,000 years of raised bogs in wet depressions in the landscape. Groundwater in Westmeath is also an important part of its geology. Water from Lough Lene flows to the River Deel and hence to the Boyne and the Irish Sea. Underground drainage goes to the springs at Fore and onto the River Shannon and the Atlantic.

Map legend: Geological Map of Limerick (based on GSI 1:1,000,000 map 2003). Green: Silurian; Beige: Silurian & Devonian sandstones and conglomerates; Light blue: Lower Carboniferous limestone.