The Battle of New Ross took place in County Wexford during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It was fought between the Irish Republican insurgents called the United Irishmen and British Crown forces composed of regular soldiers, militia and yeomanry. The attack on the town of New Ross on the River Barrow, was an attempt by the recently victorious rebels to break out of county Wexford across the river Barrow and to spread the rebellion into county Kilkenny and the outlying province of Munster.
On 4 June 1798, the rebels advanced from their camp on Carrigbyrne Hill to Corbet Hill, just outside New Ross town. The battle, the bloodiest of the 1798 rebellion, began at dawn on 5 June 1798 when the Crown garrison was attacked by a force of almost 10,000 rebels, massed in three columns outside the town. The attack had been expected since the fall of Wexford town to the rebels on 30 May and the British garrison of 2,000 had prepared defences both outside and inside the town. Trenches were dug and manned by skirmishers on the approaches to the town while cannon were stationed facing all the rapidly falling approaches and narrow streets of the town to counter the expected mass charges by the rebels, who were mainly armed with pikes.
Bagenal Harvey, the United Irish Leader recently released from captivity following the rebel seizure of Wexford town, attempted to negotiate surrender of New Ross but the rebel emissary Matt Furlong was shot down by Crown outposts while bearing flag of truce. His death provoked a furious charge by an advance guard of 500 insurgents led by John Kelly (of ballad fame) who had instructions to seize the Three Bullet Gate (the bearna bhaoil or "Gap of Danger" in the Irish national anthem) and wait for reinforcements before pushing into the town. To aid their attack, the rebels first drove a herd of cattle through the gate.
Another rebel column attacked the Priory Gate but the third pulled back from the Market Gate intimidated by the strong defenses. Seizing the opportunity the garrison sent a force of cavalry out the Market Gate to attack and scatter the remaining two hostile columns from the flanks. However the rebel rump had not yet deployed and upon spotting the British manoeuvre, rallied the front ranks who stood and broke the cavalry charge with massed pikes.
The encouraged rebel army then swept past the Crown outposts and seized the Three Bullet Gate causing the garrison and populace to flee in panic. Without pausing for reinforcement, the rebels broke into the town attacking simultaneously down the steeply sloping streets but met with strong resistance from well-prepared second lines of defence of the well armed soldiers. Despite horrific casualties the rebels managed to seize two-thirds of the town by using the cover of smoke from burning buildings and forced the near withdrawal of all Crown forces from the town. However, the rebels' limited supplies of gunpowder and ammunition forced them to rely on the pike and blunted their offensive. The military managed to hold on and following the arrival of reinforcements, launched a counterattack before noon which finally drove the exhausted rebels from the town.
No effort to pursue the withdrawing rebels was made but when the town had been secured, a massacre of prisoners, trapped rebels and civilians of both sympathies alike began which continued for days. Some hundreds were burned alive when rebel casualty stations were torched by victorious troops and more rebels are believed to have been killed in the aftermath of the battle than during the actual fighting. Reports of such atrocities brought by escaping rebels are believed to have influenced the retaliatory murder of over 100 loyalists in the flames of Scullabogue Barn.
Casualties in the Battle of New Ross are estimated at 2,800 to 3,000 Rebels and 200 Garrison dead. An Augustinian Friar at New Ross on 5 June 1798, the day of the Battle, entered in the Augustinian Church Mass Book the following in Latin: "Hodie hostis rebellis repulsa est ab obsidione oppidi cum magna caede, puta 3000", ("today, the rebel enemy was driven back from the assault of the town with great slaughter (carnage), estimated at 3000".) A loyalist eye-witness account stated; "The remaining part of the evening (of the 5th June, 1798) was spent in searching for and shooting the insurgents, whose loss in killed was estimated at two thousand, eight hundred and six men." This second figure is probably the most accurate of all figures given - it indicates that an attempt to make an accurate count had been made. Most of the dead Rebels were thrown in the River Barrow or buried in a mass grave outside the town walls, a few days after the Battle.
The remaining rebel army reorganised and formed a camp at Sliabh Coillte some five miles (8 km) to the east but never attempted to attack the town again. They later attacked General John Moore's invading column but were defeated at the battle of Foulksmills on 20 June 1798.