Bloodsports and boozing at the barracks?

Above: Excavation underway at the site of the Athlone Garda Barracks

Artefacts dating back possibly as far as the 1600s have been found by archaeologists working on the site of Athlone’s new garda station.

The items uncovered range from coins to musket balls, to a thimble and a hair comb, and fragments of clay pipes and glassware as well as military buttons, uniform buckles, and interesting animal bones.

Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, Minister of State for the Office of Public Works and Flood Relief announced the finds unearthed during the monitored excavation works by Angela Wallace of Atlantic Archaeology at Barrack Street, Athlone.

According to the Office of Public Works (OPW), the recent discoveries, found amidst a perfectly preserved cobbled area and courtyard surface, offer a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life of the first soldiers stationed at Athlone during the foundation of Custom Barracks, formerly Victoria Barracks, circa 1690.

“These objects suggest the soldiers had time away from the stresses of battle and controlling the colonies to indulge in drinking, smoking and gambling on blood sports,” according to the OPW.

Zoo-archaeologist Siobhan Duffy identified a lower leg-bone from a male chicken which had the characteristic spur sawn off at approximately mid-way along its length.

“This procedure would have been carried out during the bird’s life, to facilitate the attachment of an artificial spur for the purposes of cockfighting.” Duffy explained.

At this time cockfighting was a potentially lucrative enterprise, regarded as a sport worthy of the powerful elite.

The discovery of many clay pipe fragments dating between 1640 and 1670, along with fragments of fine 17th century glassware, reinforce this theory of elite status activities at the site.

This is further enhanced by the excavation of a fine-toothed bone comb and clay curler, as many soldiers during this time wore their hair closely shaven to avoid lice infestations and more senior officers wore grand wigs.

To date, there has been no other extensive excavation carried out on a military barracks in Ireland that has produced such a wide range of artifacts and ecofacts revealing the social and domestic activities of soldiers during this period.

The €8.3 million contract for the restoration and refurbishment of Athlone Garda Station involves the complete restoration and refurbishment of the existing Garda Station and the former Social Protection building next door.  Both of these OPW buildings date from the 1930’s and 1940’s respectively and require significant upgrading and includes a new link building which will provide a new entrance that is accessible to all and incorporates new facilities for the Gardai.

Angela Wallace will conduct a talk on the findings on Thursday 20th August 2020 at 1pm in Athlone Castle as part of their Heritage Week events. It is also planned to stream this event on Athlone Castle social media channels to facilitate a wider audience, details available on www.athlonecastle.ie

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