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