Any old iron

Amongst the objects of iron found during the Shannon Navigation Works, 1843–48, and presented by the Shannon Commissioners to the Academy, an iron sword (figure 1) is of much interest. It is of the Halstatt class, and is, I believe, the only iron example of that class which has been found in Ireland.

A label attached to the sword states that it was “taken up in the buckets of the ‘C’ dredger” out of the bed of the Shannon above the new bridge of Athlone, August, 1847.

It is incomplete, and has lost much of its substance from rust, especially along the edges. The form, however, can be distinguished. It is made on the pattern of the leaf-shaped bronze sword. The width of the blade increases towards the point, and the handle-plate was of the flat form of the bronze swords.

Fig 1 Iron sword found in the Shannon [rotated]

Fig 1 Iron sword found in the Shannon [rotated]. Top end to right-hand side

This latter feature is certain, and is the most definite in the specimen. The edge of the handle-plate is intact for a short length at the right side; and the remains of a rivet-hole can be seen on the expanded portion at the hilt.

The curve in the blade does not appear to be intentional, but to be due to a bend it has received about one-third up; the line of the ridge is straight to and beyond the bend. This ridge along the centre of the blade is not a very usual feature; but it occurs occasionally on the bronze swords, and on an iron Halstatt sword found in Poitou, figured by the Abbé H Breuil (Revue Archéologique 1903 II p57).

This latter sword was found at Mignaloux-Beauvoir, near Poitiers, in 1836, but had remained unnoticed in the Museum at Poitiers until the paper mentioned. It measures in its present state 45 cm. The Irish fragment is 18½ inches long (47 cm); so the two swords were much of the same length.

A fairly large number of the bronze swords of the Halstatt type have been found in Ireland. There are twenty in the collection, and six of the winged chaps or scabbard ends of that period.

The occurrence in Ireland of the type in iron is therefore of considerable interest. The somewhat slender look of the sword and the ridge disposes me to regard it as late in the series; it must, however, rank as probably the earliest type of the iron sword which has been found in this country.

The early iron sword with flat handle-plate had been found in considerable numbers east and south of Poitou in Berry, Bourgogne, and in Lot. But its extension to the west had not been known till the example figured by the Abbé Breuil. It should be noted that Poitiers is close to the old line of communication between Ireland and the Continent by way of the Loire valley.

Illness has prevented me from placing before the Academy the archaeological evidence I have collected bearing on the question of early intercourse between Gaul and Ireland; but I should like to state as a preliminary note, that certain forms of bronze caldrons and types of pottery at the close of the Bronze Age, also of types of iron spear-heads and other objects of the La Tene period, may be advanced in support of the historical tradition in our tales of a settlement of Gauls in Leinster under Labraidh Loinngsech, at a date placed perhaps too early by the Four Masters (BC 541), and from whose “broad blue spears” the name of the province of Leinster (Laighen) is derived.

George Coffey “Early iron sword found in Ireland” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol XXVI Section C No 3 February 1906 Hodges, Figgis & Co Ltd, Dublin; Williams & Norgate, London

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