In 1798, a union of Protestant and Catholic Irish, known as the United Irishmen, led an ill-fated rising against the Crown. One of the main fields of battle in that rising was Wexford. The courage of the Wexford men, armed with little more than scythes and pikes, fashioned by local blacksmiths to hook, stab and unseat cavalry. It is a proud chapter in Irish history and many songs and verses recall the valor displayed when terraced thousands died shaking scythes at cannon as Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney wrote. Among the many valorous actions, one gallant engagement stands out and is remembered yet today. It took place on June 5, 1798, when Lieutenant John Kelly of the County Wexford insurgents, known to history as Kelly the Boy from Killan, led a group of about 600 Bantrymen in the initial assault on the town of New Ross. They stormed one of the town’s main gates. The gate was originally known as Aldgate (old gate), but was later renamed Beaulieu (anglicized to Bewley) Gate after a local Norman family whose name was also on an abbey in Hampshire. In 1649, during the Confederation War, Cromwell fired three cannon-shot against the walls of New Ross and the town surrendered. Cromwell marched his troops through that gate and the gate was thereafter known as the Three-Bullet Gate. However, many years later it would acquire yet another name.
As Three-Bullet Gate, it was the scene of prolonged and fierce fighting that June morning in 1798. Repelling a cavalry charge by the Fifth Dragoons, Kelly’s pikemen breeched the gate and spilled into the town and drove the Brits out. The hated Lord Mountjoy arrived with the Dublin Militia as reinforcements although he was killed by a shot fired from a window overlooking the gate. Kelly, a massive figure of a man, was the central figure in the house-to-house fighting that raged murderously throughout the day. Then, as Crown forces were in full retreat, Kelly fell, seriously wounded. Without their leader, the rebel attack slackened giving the English officers the needed time to rally their fleeing troops. The fury of battle continued into evening, when the courageous, but now leaderless, insurgents broke off the action after 15 hours of furious fighting and the British reinforcements turned the tide of battle.
It was then that the slaughter began, as angry Crown troops ran down rebel stragglers without mercy. Major Vesey, commanding in place of the fallen Lord Mountjoy, wrote: No quarter was given. The soldiers were too much exasperated and could not be stopped. Dr Jordan Roche, a medical officer filed a report on the night’s activities which read, in part: The remaining part of the evening was spent searching for and shooting the insurgents whose loss in killed was estimated at 2,806 men.
After the fall of New Ross, the Irish were forced back to Wexford town and the final battle at Vinegar Hill. Today only part of the wall around New Ross remains as does part of an oval tower at the gate and a stone with an inscription noting that the gate was taken down in 1845. Although it is gone, Bewley Gate, or Three-Bullet Gate will always be remembered for the ferocious fighting and incredible courage displayed there against overwhelming odds. Another reason that it will never be forgotten is because the gate became known as the Bearna Bhaiol – the Gap of Danger – the name by which it is remembered today in the words of the Irish National Anthem.