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Publication: Vinegar Hill: The Last Stand of the Wexford Rebels of 1798

‘Vinegar Hill: The Last Stand of the Wexford Rebels of 1798’, edited by Ronan O’Flaherty and Jacqui Hynes, has just been published by Four Courts Press. I’m a co-author on two of the chapters in this new publication which represents the work of The Longest Day Project, a multi-disciplinary research programme involving archaeologists, historians, folklorists, architectural historians and military specialists to provide new insight into what happened at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on 21 June 1798.

My role in the The Longest Day Project project was to provide expertise for two geophysical assessments on the battlefield, both of which were funded by Wexford County Council: 1) of the possible mass graves related to the battle and 2) a licenced metal detection survey of the battlefield.


The first paper, ‘Investigating potential mass graves on Vinegar Hill’, was written by myself and Cian Hogan.

Documentary and folkloric evidence suggests the presence of both mass graves and individual graves on Vinegar Hill, containing buried human remains deposited in the aftermath of the 1798 battle. The Vinegar Hill landscape is rarely ploughed and thus much of the 1798 battlefield has been preserved. Any mass-grave pits dating to the battle are likely to have survived well, with little (if any) plough damage to skeletal remains buried at depth. This paper identifies the potential for mass graves on the hill, guided by documentary accounts, followed by analyses of the geology, topography and cartographic sources, as well as a geophysical survey. This investigation identified a previously unrecorded quarry-pit backfilled with loose and moist soils that may potentially contain human remains. The implications of the results are discussed with reference to the outcomes of archaeological research at other mass-grave sites, including the potential for a forensic excavation.

Key findings from the first paper:

  • Geophysical surveys identified previously unrecorded elements of battlefield architecture.
  • A landscape of hollows created by local industrial quarrying were mapped by the geophysical surveys (2D earth-resistance survey and Electrical Resistivity Imaging profiles) including three large pits, north of Vinegar Hill Lane.
  • A large quarry pit, a rubble spread from a pilot/trial pit and associated disturbed-ground were present in the 1798 landscape, offering impassable obstacles for the armies to overcome, impeding visibility and movement, but also offering cover for protection.
  • Post-battle, the existing landscape of hollows may have been utilized to bury the dead, supplemented by smaller, shallow spade-dug scoops in the topsoil.
  • The number of dead interred within those hollows is conjectural, however, comparative studies from battles at Towton and Lützen suggest that even the smallest of the ‘shallow scoops’ at Vinegar Hill has the potential to contain the remains of at least forty individuals.

The second paper, ‘Picking up the pieces: the archaeological survey of Vinegar Hill’, was written by Dr Damian Shiels and myself.

The metal detection undertaken as part of the Longest Day Research Project represents the largest and most successful such survey yet attempted in the Republic of Ireland. The fieldwork was carried out in 2017 and uncovered significant quantities of artefacts deposited in and around Vinegar Hill on 21 June 1798, definitively demonstrating the value of such approaches to the archaeological investigation of Irish battlefields. The paper examines the archive of finds that were recovered by the first systematic licenced metal detection survey on the battlefield, carried out by Dr Damian Shiels and I (each of us working at the time for Rubicon Heritage and Earthsound Geophysics Ltd., respectively), and colleagues Sam Wilson and Hilde van der Heul (Cotswold Archaeology), Darren Regan and Ciaran Davis (Earthsound Geophysics Ltd.), Enda O’Flaherty (Rubicon Heritage) and Michael Cahill (IT Sligo). Each find was recorded with an RTK GPS to within 1cm, successfully mapping their precise location on the battlefield, which fuelled our preliminary GIS analysis of the battle.

Image
Some members of the 1798 Vinegar Hill Battlefield licenced metal detection team at the National 1798 Rebellion Centre (l-r): Hilde van der Heul, Enda O’Flaherty, Sam Wilson, Dr James Bonsall, Ciaran Davis, Michael Cahill (missing: Dr Damian Shiels) with Byron K. D. Jones.

Key findings from the second paper:

  • The licensed battlefield archaeological survey is the most extensive undertaken in the Republic of Ireland, yet only a tiny fraction of the 1798 battlefield has been explored.
  • The condition and distribution of material indicates extreme violence on the battlefield: heavy fighting occurred towards the summit from east to west; distinct clusters of bullets likely represent the firing lines of the opposing sides and a potential static firing line; highly impacted bullets suggest exchanges of fire at extremely close range; specialist analysis confirmed that canister sand shot artillery was employed in a close-support anti-personnel role; fragments of broken weapon furniture from a pistol and musket were likely lost during close-quarters action.
  • Threats to the site continue: a recent housing development has destroyed part of the battlefield, apparently with no significant archaeological work carried out; housing and school developments have both seen extensive landscaping works take place; illegal metal detection on the hill has taken place and we cannot know what damage has been done to the archaeological record as a result.
  • The continued vigilance of the local population in preventing illegal metal detection activity in the future is key to the battlefield’s survival.
Enda O'Flaherty, Damian Shiels, Ciarán Davis, Hilde van der Heul, Sam Wilson, James Bonsoll and Michael Kinsella at the Map My Battle lecture 'Uncovering the Archaeology of Vinegar Hill' in Enniscorthy Library
(l-r:) Enda O’Flaherty, Dr Damian Shiels, Ciarán Davis, Hilde van der Heul, Sam Wilson, Dr James Bonsall and Michael Cahill at the Map My Battle lecture ‘Uncovering the Archaeology of Vinegar Hill’ in Enniscorthy Library

The monograph has received press coverage in The Irish Times and The Enniscorthy Guardian.

The research papers can be found in the monograph ‘Vinegar Hill: The Last Stand of the Wexford Rebels of 1798’, published by Four Courts Press.

Bonsall, J. & Hogan, C. 2021. ‘Investigating potential mass graves on Vinegar Hill’ in O’Flaherty, R and Hynes, J. (eds.) Vinegar Hill : The Last Stand of the Wexford Rebels of 1798, Four Courts Press, Dublin. pp157-170.

Shiels, D. & Bonsall, J. 2021. ‘Picking up the pieces: the archaeological survey of Vinegar Hill’ in O’Flaherty, R and Hynes, J. (eds.) Vinegar Hill : The Last Stand of the Wexford Rebels of 1798, Four Courts Press, Dublin. pp190-204.

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