Bold and imposing, Athlone Castle stands beside the River Shannon. A raft of dazzling new exhibitions are housed inside this 13th-century Norman stronghold. After their defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1691, the Irish retreated to Athlone and made the river their first line of defense. The castle, which celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2010, has played a strategic role in Irish history. Eight exhibition spaces—in the main building as well as the keep and the armory—detail this enthralling chronological story and that of the town from the earliest settlement up to modern trading times. Sculptural forms convey human figures that bring the characters of Athlone to life in an engaging way. They sit cheek by jowl with 3-D maps, audiovisuals, and weapons such as a bow and arrow that allow hands-on experiences for both children and adults. You will feel right at the center of things with the 360-degree view of events of the Siege of Athlone in 1690. It's not your typical Irish fairy-tale
castle, but it is fun, and kids especially love the interactive game "How to Capture a Castle." It's hard to beat on a wet day in the Midlands. In 2014 a fascinating permanent exhibition about the life of the singer John Count McCormack, who was born in Athlone in 1884, was installed in the castle. Programs from the Dublin Amateur Operatic Society, his Papal Chain presented to him in 1928, a montage of photographs, and HMV records with his signature song, "I Hear you Calling," are on show. Cabinets contain a silver cup from his admirers in Philadelphia and a cup presented by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, New York. McCormack sang in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York opposite Dame Nellie Melba in 1910 and continued to sing at the Met until 1918. The castle gatehouse serves as the town's tourist office.