The Irish Rebel and the Ancient Sword

After the Battle of New Ross in 1798 an ancient blade was prised from the hands of a dead rebel fighter. The unnamed warrior had gone to war not with an iron pike like so many of his compatriots, but something much older. He died clasping a weapon not seen on a battlefield for over 2,500 years. In his arms lay a Late Bronze Age sword.   

The New Ross sword
The New Ross sword

In the summer of 1798 County Wexford experienced a popular uprising against British rule. Lead by the United Irish Men, a largely peasant army swept through the county, capturing first the towns of Enniscorthy and Wexford. Next they marched on the riverside port of New Ross, where they met with stubborn resistance.

pike 1798 Wexford
1798 Pike

On the morning of the 5th of June the rebel army charged the town’s defences. Armed mainly with pikes they were met with musket, grape-shot and cannon fire, which caused devastation amongst their  ranks. The fighting raged for most of the day and was extremely bloody, with estimates suggesting that close to 3,000 men were killed. By evening the rebels were in full retreat, and the streets of New Ross lay littered with their dead. In the following days, as the bodies of the fallen were collected, an unusual weapon was retrieved from one of the rebel casualties, a Late Bronze Age sword.

This fine, leaf-shaped blade was  in remarkably good condition for a c. 2,500 year old artefact. The only modification the rebel fighter had made to the sword, to make it battle worthy again, was to add a crude leather handle,which was attached with iron rivets.

Over 400 similar Late Bronze Age swords are known from Ireland, the vast majority having being recovered from watery contexts such as rivers, lakes or bogs.  Unfortunately the original find place of the New Ross sword remains unknown, as does the name and burial place of its last owner, the Wexford rebel.

The sword itself now resides in the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada.

The later leather handle
The later leather handle



Images of the sword after Culleton, E. 1984 Early Man in County Wexford, 5,000 BC – 300 BC, Mount Salus Press, p. 21


10 thoughts on “The Irish Rebel and the Ancient Sword

  1. Why is that ancient Irish historical relic in a museum in Canada? Shame on you continuing that ancient British tradition of stealing from foreign shores. Give it back, it has no place there.

    1. Yes, some artifacts’ display locations are chosen poorly due to m people not doing the right thing somewhere along the line…

      But usually, artifacts like this that are being displayed abroad are “on loan” from the originating country (or country where they were found in, depending). A lot of times because they will generate more funds (portion of the entrance fees) for further preservation efforts from people who haven’t had a chance to see it. For instance, if it’s been an display in Ireland for 10 years and it’s not as “new” to people there anymore. Or simply because some are genuinely interested in sharing humankind’ fascinating past with the world, particularly with places that don’t have as many native historical artifacts in their region. 🙂

  2. I don’t usually consider myself prone to sentimentality, but there’s a certain air of ‘tragically romantic symbolism’ to this story.

  3. Okey, people calm down, please, and read the post. The sword was taken from the hand of a dead rebel following the attack on New Ross in 1798. This would have been seen as a spoil of war and whoever took it was not breaking any laws (it wasn’t treasure trove) and the sword’s journey to Canada would have been unobjectionable for much of the 19th century. We have plenty of such objects here (mostly in storage) and at least the sword in Canada creates an interesting artefactual link to prehistoric Ireland.

  4. To Barbara,

    There well may be A Certain Air Of Tragic Romantic Symbol to the story. However, the are others to whom
    . the find is a part of their Heritage. My ancestors were Out in In Wexford, 1798. A relative of mine showed me A Musket captured by my Ancestor Malone from the English Forces.It was taken from a Member of The North Cork Militia who were what Mr. Harpur would call papists. One of his descendants was with the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg,1863, He helped save the life of the Union General Winfield Scott Hancock..One of my Great Uncles died on 11/11/1918. One of the women of my family from Wexford save a number of her Anglican Neighbors from radical rebels.

    Tony, the treatment of Wexford by the English General was Prehistoric. e

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