Thomas Ashe was born in Kinard in Lispole in 1885 and became a teacher in north County Dublin. He came to prominence in his area as a musician and was a member of the Black Raven Pipe Band. He was immersed in cultural organisations such as the GAA and the Gaelic League and he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1908. In 1913, he joined the Irish Volunteers and rose to the rank of commandant of the Fingal Battalion. During the Easter Rising, he led his company at the so-called Battle of Ashbourne and led attacks on several RIC barracks in north Dublin. Ashe was the last of the 1916 commanders to surrender on Saturday, 29 April 1916. He was sentenced to death on 11 May 1916, a sentence later commuted to penal servitude and unlike Pearse and other leaders, he would be spared execution. Along with 64 others, Ashe was jailed in Lewes Prison near Brighton, the jail in which he composed the well-known poem ‘Let Me Carry Your Cross for Ireland, Lord.’
The 1916 leaders and the Easter Rising were roundly condemned by the general public and in the press. It was dismissed initially as an ill-advised rebellion which had cost countless civilian lives and achieved little or nothing militarily or politically. Just two weeks after the Rising, Tralee Urban District Council condemned the Rising as ‘the criminal folly in Dublin.’ Days after the Rising, the Bishop of Kerry, Dr John Mangan told his congregation at St Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney that the 1916 rebels were ‘misguided men, who, if they had their way, would plunge this country into the horrors of civil war.’ The bishop described Roger Casement as a ‘traitor to his country.’ So that type of comment had a significant impact on public opinion. As the rebel prisoners were taken away to jails in England, they were abused and heckled by members of the public who failed to see how the Rising would advance the cause for Independence.
But all that was about to change in the twelve months leading up to Thomas Ashe’s death. Public opinion shifted considerably when the Easter leaders were executed however and in the period between the executions and the death of Thomas Ashe approximately a year later, the transformation in public opinion and in politics was enormous. The way in which Pearse, Connolly and others were executed in May 1916 turned public support away from the Irish Parliamentary Party and in favour of Sinn Féin and physical force republicanism. While some people had condemned the Rising as an unnecessary and failed rebellion, they were infuriated by the way in which the leaders had died.
In August 1916, Roger Casement went on trial and what was publicly available at the end of 1916 were the reports of his trial and whereas he had been condemned by many in the months after he landed at Banna Strand, again the way he was tried and executed caused a significant shift in public opinion. So, throughout the end of 1916 and into 1917, there is a galvanising of republicanism across the country and an increased impetus towards independence. And then came the death of Thomas Ashe. No more than the brutality of the execution of the 1916 leaders altered the public attitude about what they had set out to do, the manner of Ashes death and how it was publicised was absolutely transformative.
In the summer of 1917, Ashe and his comrades had been released from prison and over 4,000 people turned out in Tralee to welcome Ashe and Austin Stack home. On his release, Ashe was regarded by the authorities as one of the most important, senior and popular leaders of the Irish Volunteers. At this time, the re-organisation and re-funding of the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, the Irish Citizen Army, and other republican organisations was continuing apace.
In August 2017, Ashe – along with Waterville native, Fionán Lynch and Tralee’s Austin Stack – were arrested just weeks after speaking at Casement’s Fort in Ardfert to mark the first anniversary of the death of Roger Casement. That event at Casement’s Fort on 5 August 2017 was very significant. The Kerryman that week reported that: ‘Casement Day was a striking manifestation of Sinn Féin strength in the county. We knew all along that Kerry had long since turned its back on Parliamentarianism – but we must candidly say that we never anticipated there would be much a monster demonstration as there was at McKenna’s Fort, now known as Casement’s Fort, on Sunday on the occasion of the first anniversary of the execution of Roger Casement. Thousands took part in the procession, including 500 cyclists, nearly 300 men on horseback, as well as 3,000 men who marched four deep. Many men were in uniform.’
Ashe addressed the thousands who gathered at McKenna’s Fort. He spoke of the men of Easter Week, 1916, and their idealism and their legacy for the next generation. ‘Our opponents,’ he said, ‘will tell us we were criminal idealists. You can see that the men of Easter Week were the most practical nationalists that ever lived in Ireland. There was no dreaming about them or idealism but the dreams and ideals of absolute Irish liberty, and they worked for it and placed it on a foundation that it will never again be taken down.’
Ashe was arrested a few weeks later when he was recognised by police in Dublin city centre and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. He, Lynch and Stack were moved to Mountjoy Jail. The prisoners demanded political prisoner status, a call which was rejected by the prison authorities. Their shoes, bedding and bedclothes were removed, leaving them to sleep on a cold, damp floor. Because of the way they were treated, they began a hunger strike on 20 September. The prisoners were forcibly fed using a gastric tube which involved the insertion of a plastic tube through the mouth and into the stomach while the prisoner was tied to a chair. Fionán Lynch described what was involved: ‘Each man was strapped, legs and hands, to a high chair, mouth forced open with a wooden spoon and then the stomach pump pushed in by a doctor and the food poured in through it.’
A few days later, on 25 September, Thomas Ashe was force fed for the last time, as Fionán Lynch again described: ‘I had already been forcibly fed when I saw Tom (Thomas Ashe) being carried past my cell and I called out through the broken spy-hole in my door: “Stick it, Tom, boy,” and he replied, “I’ll stick it, Fin.” I saw Tom being carried back after his final forcible feeding and could see that he was very ill indeed, as he was quite blue and appeared to be unconscious.’
That is the eye-witness account of Fionán Lynch. It is understood that while being force fed milk and eggs through a feeding tube, the tube went down the wrong way and some of the food entered Ashe’s lungs. Ashe already had pneumonia and he quickly lost consciousness. Hours later, he was moved to the Mater Hospital. Another key figure of the revolutionary period, Dr Kathleen Lynn tended to Ashe as he lay dying. He passed away at about 10.30pm.
Ashe’s death had a truly seismic political impact. Significant in this regard was the publication of the details of the inquest into Ashe’s death. The inquest began just two days after he died and the verdict of the jury was published by a Dublin publisher, Fergus O’Connor. Among the comments of the jury at the inquest were that the death of Thomas Ashe was caused by allowing him to sleep on a cold floor followed by forcible feeding. The jury condemned the using of forcible feeding describing it as ‘inhuman and dangerous.’ When this detail was published and circulated there was a major public outcry.
Ashe’s funeral was also hugely significant. The funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Dublin with tens of thousands filing past his remains at City Hall. The funeral to Glasnevin Cemetery was at least three miles in length. After shots were fired over the coffin, Michael Collins delivered the short oration: ‘Nothing additional remains to be said. That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian.’ Collins’ oration marked his ascent as successor to Ashe in the IRB and the republican movement. An estimated 700 people travelled from Kerry to attend the funeral at the time and across Kerry mock or imitation funerals were held in many areas including in west Kerry as Volunteer Patrick Walsh from Annascaul recalled:
‘… our ranks began to swell and then came the death of Thomas Ashe. He was one of our own and on the day of his funeral we sent representatives to Dublin but we also organised a procession to the Ashe family burial ground at Kinard in Lispole. We had a great muster of Volunteers. They came from Dingle, Ballyferriter, Lispole, and some came by boat from Cahirciveen.’
The British reaction to Ashe’s death was also notable. The then Chief Secretary for Ireland, Ian McPherson said that his death did ‘more to stimulate Sinn Féinism and disorder in Ireland than anything I know.’ The London Daily Express commented that the passing of Ashe had made 100,000 Sinn Féiners out of 100,000 constitutional nationalists.
Following Ashe’s death there was a significant reorganisation of the Irish Volunteers on the ground and more and more people began to engage politically. In June 1917, 36 publicans here in Tralee had been prosecuted for displaying republican flags on their premises to welcome home Austin Stack and Thomas Ashe following their release from jail. In Kerry in the period after Ashe’s death, Sinn Féin grew to have 44 branches in the county with over 3,200 members.
Ashe’s death also occurred against the backdrop of the political growth of Sinn Féin nationally. For example, in July, just two months before Ashe died, Eamon de Valera won the East Clare by-election. Ashe had spoken at rallies for De Valera during that election. Just over a year after Ashe died, Sinn Féin won 73 of the 105 parliamentary seats in the December 1918 general election. And just a month later, the First Dáil assembled in the Mansion House in Dublin.
Speaking in 1959, President Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh said of Ashe: ‘Ireland was poorer when he gave his life in her cause. But Ireland was also the richer as a result of his death because his noble character and heroic sacrifice was an inspiration of incalculable power in the struggle which was still to come.’
To read the definitive account of Thomas Ashe’s life and the story of Kerry and 1916, get your copy of ‘Kerry 1916: Histories and Legacies of the Easter Rising – A Centenary Record’ here: https://kerry1916book.com/product/kerry-1916-histories-and-legacies-of-the-easter-rising/