Pictured Grandsonof thomas Ashe at the presentation of bust in 1957
Men do not die easily…their work half done. But had they known for them the task was done. They fought and tried, but burst their hearts, yet no job was better done”.
In the long history of the Irish people it can be truly said that the days of Easter Week, 1916, were days which will forever shine with a bright annals of our nation. The rising was looked upon by the majority, as a failure. The men that took part in the Easter Rising kept alive the spirit and soul of the nation. Those heroic men offered their lives when they they signed the proclamation. People called them fools – a handful of Irish insurgents against the mighty, British Empire. But Pierce himself said “In a few years people will see what we have tried to do. It is only now that we fully realize how well “the job was done.” Much has been written of these brave men, to name but a few, Pearse, Connolly, Clarke and McDonagh. One man we must pay a tribute to was a man who was prepared to “carry his cross for Ireland.”
‘If I die, I die in a good cause’, the haunting words of Thomas Ashe, spoken just prior to his death on hunger strike in 1917. Thomas Ashe packed much into his short life; school principal, active member of the Gaelic League, Commandant of the 5th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers in 1916, trade unionist, life sentence prisoner, President of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
Born in 1885 in Kinard east of Dingle, Co. Kerry, he was the seventh child of Gregory and Ellen Ashe, whose cottage on a hillside overlooked the inlet of Dingle Bay known as the “Traigh Beag.” Gregory Ashe farmed a small- holding which gave him the means to support his large family. In the course of time Thomas grew to manhood and by his short life and the manner of his death, he swayed the thoughts of the Irish nation. Around the glow of the turf fire on the hearth, the Ashe children would listen to their father recite verse after verse of poetry. From him they learned of the age and struggle of Ireland to be free.
In 1905 at the age of twenty, Thomas Ashe departed to the De La Salle, Training College in Waterford. He began his training course and almost immediately he became deeply involved in the Gaelic League. After a two-year course he qualified as a National Teacher
He subsequently took up a position as Principal at Corduff National School in Lusk Co. Dublin and divided his free time between commitments to the Gaelic League and the Irish Volunteers. He was a popular teacher and was extremely active in the local community of north county Dublin, establishing the local Black Ravens Pipe Band, which gained nation-wide fame as well as organising hurling matches and feiseanna. A member of the Dublin Branch of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, he was a determined supporter of the Dublin workers during the 1913 Lockout, a battle that raged for months as the workers, led by Jim Larkin, were locked out of their employment for refusing to sign a pledge not to join the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Ashe threw his support behind the workers, writing to his brother Gregory in America:
‘I suppose you know by this that Jim Larkin was sent to jail. He’s out for the last two or three days again. The government got afraid of a general strike in England, which the Englishmen were organising, in his favour. So they let him out. He and Jim Connolly are now asking men to drill like Carson’s. If we had them all drilled I know what they’d direct their rifles on very soon. I hope they’ll continue drilling. We are all here on Larkin’s side. He’ll beat hell out of the snobbish, mean, seoinín employers yet, and more power to him.’
The turning point in the life of Thomas Ashe came when he attended the founding meeting of Óglaigh na hÉireann – the Irish Volunteers – at the Rotunda, in Dublin in November l913. The following years were a period of intense activity with the Volunteers landing arms at Howth and the establishment by the IRB of a Military Council. Preparations for a Rising were being advanced apace. During this period he travelled to America to raise funds on behalf of the Gaelic League. In 1915, following the death of the old Fenian Jeremiah O Donovan Rossa, the Volunteers put on a massive show of strength for the funeral in Dublin. In a searing oration delivered at Rossa’s graveside in Glasnevin, Pádraig Pearse spoke prophetically:
‘The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have pacified half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools the fools the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead. And while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’
By the time of the 1916 Rising, Ashe had been appointed Commandant of the 5th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers in Fingal, North County Dublin. Despite the confusion caused by Eoin MacNeill’s infamous countermanding orders on Easter Sunday, the 5th Battalion turned out in force, with an estimated 120 Volunteers parading. With the Rising postponed until the following day, about half that number turned out on Easter Monday. This was one of the few districts outside of Dublin City where the Volunteers mobilized and despite having paltry munitions, they fought gallantly and inflicted serious casualties on British crown forces, adopting guerrilla tactics that were to prove so effective some years later. Ashe’s initial orders had been to disrupt communications and hamper the ability of the British to mobilize reinforcements into the capital. They set about their work with determination, blowing up railway lines and attacking RIC barracks. A number of Volunteers from the Battalion were summoned by James Connolly to support the Republican forces in the city, where they were detailed to both the GPO and the Mendicity Institute. The Battalion subsequently received a boost itself when it was joined by a small number of Volunteers from the Cabra Road in Phibsboro. These Volunteers had been forced to retreat north following a sustained attack from British artillery.
The Battalion went into action on Wednesday of Easter Week when they smashed the telegraphic equipment in Swords Post Office and raided the RIC barracks in the village, before moving on to Donabate where they captured the RIC barracks there. The next target for the Battalion was to the north, the Garristown barracks, which was taken with ease. The biggest challenge would lie in capturing the reinforced barracks at Ashbourne. On Friday, the Volunteers moved to destroy the railway lines at Batterstown before advancing on their primary target. Their actions were providing inspiration to the republican forces in the city as reflected in James Connolly’s manifesto issued from the GPO on Friday 28th April:
This is the fifth day of the establishment of the Irish Republic, and the flag of our country still floats from the most important buildings in the country.....The men of north County Dublin are in the field, having occupied all the Police Barracks in the district, destroyed all the telegraph on the Great Northern Railway up to Dundalk, and are operating against the trains of the Midland and the Great Western……Courage boys we are winning…. Never had man or woman a cause, never was a cause more grandly served.
Signed, James Connolly, Commandant General, Dublin Division.
The ensuing Battle of Ashbourne is considered to be one of the most audacious engagements of Easter Week. The manner in which Ashe and the Battalion had sliced through enemy forces in the north County had forced the RIC to reinforce their base at Ashbourne. The Volunteers were not to be deterred. Despite being severely outnumbered and having come under surprise attack from almost 100 RIC men, who had arrived in haste from Slane, they maintained their discipline, defended their ground and ultimately put the RIC force to flight. The Barracks was captured and cleared of weapons. Ashe ordered the surviving RIC officers to return home but warned them of the peril of taking up arms against the Irish Republic. A dozen RIC men were killed at the Battle of Ashbourne. Two young Volunteers Thomas Rafferty and John Crennigan also lost their lives.
On Sunday, two days after the battle, Pádraig Pearse’s orders to surrender reached Fingal. Despondent, the Volunteers made their way to Swords and from there were transported to Richmond Barracks in Dublin. As Commander of the 5th Battalion, Ashe was tried by court martial and sentenced to death. He was held briefly in Kilmainham, where fourteen of his comrades were executed by firing squad. Ashe’s sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life and he was transported to Dartmoor prison in England, before being transferred to Lewes prison in the south of England. Ashe encouraged his comrades to learn Irish and conducted regular classes. His old friend Cathal Brugha, himself gravely wounded during Easter Week, wrote to him in prison;
My dear Tomas,
I was delighted to get your letter and especially so to hear that you are in such good form notwithstanding your present surroundings….Though your absence is a loss to the language at home, still by all accounts it is compensated to an extent by your being over there. I understand you are turning out some great students……Bean a tighe desires to be remembered to yourself. We have your photo in the dining room and she remembers you distinctly. When you call up, which please God will be soon, she will easily recognise you and welcome you in the language you love best….Good luck to you now my dear Tomas.
1917 marked resurgence in support for the Republican movement. Spurred on by the victory of Count Plunkett, father of executed leader Joseph Plunkett, in the North Roscommon by-election, Joe McGuinness, a prisoner in Lewes, was selected to contest the South Longford by-election in April. ‘Put him in to get him out!’ was the election slogan, and McGuinness scored a stunning victory. In June, the British government announced a general amnesty for the prisoners held in England. The remaining republican prisoners held since the Easter Rising, returned home to a tumultuous reception. The political conditions in Ireland had changed dramatically. In west Kerry bonfires blazed on the hills to welcome home local man Thomas Ashe who had fought so gallantly during Easter Week. He addressed huge crowds on the roads all the way to his home village of Kinard.
It was not long before Ashe threw himself back into action. By this time he had already succeeded Pádraig Pearse as President of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Upon their release the prisoners, representative of Commandants who fought in 1916, sent a letter to the President of the United States;
June 18, 1917.
‘We, the undersigned have just had the opportunity of seeing the printed text of the message of the United States of America to the Provisional Government of Russia. We see that the President accepts as the main aim of both countries, ‘the carrying of the present struggle for the freedom of all peoples to a successful consummation’ ….what the governments and people of other nations, will, we trust, regard as even more sacred, the right of each people to defend itself against external aggression, external interference and external control. It is this particular right that we claim for the Irish people, and not content with statements of principle, though these themselves may be made a pretext for our oppression, we are engaged and mean to engage ourselves in practical means for establishing this right….’
Ashe declined the nomination to contest the East Clare by-election, and instead supported Éamon de Valera’s nomination. Following an electrifying campaign, de Valera romped home, polling twice the number of votes as his Home Rule opponent. Ashe embarked on a speaking tour, travelling the country addressing countless rallies. In July following an address at Ballinalee Co. Longford, a warrant was issued for his arrest under the Defence of the Realm Act. The British authorities determined that he had made a speech ‘likely to cause disaffection.’ Not to be deflected, Ashe returned to his native Kerry and spoke at the first anniversary commemoration for Roger Casement. Addressing the events of Easter Week 1916, he struck a defiant chord:
‘Our opponents 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 for the last 100 years. 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 from. I had the pleasure during Easter Week – of receiving a despatch from Jim Connolly, who commanded in Dublin. His despatch said, amongst other things; “the Republican Flag flies triumphantly over Dublin City. There will be glorious days for Ireland yet.” Will you mark these words my friends? Will you mark the words of Connolly; take them to your heart and think of the mind of the man who saw clearly from behind the barricades of Dublin streets that there would be glorious days for Ireland yet.’
Ashe’s liberty was short-lived and in mid August he was arrested in Dublin city centre and committed to the Curragh, before being transferred to Mountjoy at the end of the month. Tried by court –martial he was convicted and sentenced to one years’ hard labour. The British authorities who were attempting to impose a prison regime that would criminalize republican prisoners had not legislated for the steely determination of Thomas Ashe and his comrades. They refused to be treated as criminals and demanded basic rights, as prisoners of war might expect; freedom of association and the right not to engage in prison work. Ashe was singled out for particular punishment and had his entire cell stripped of everything, including all of his bedding, even down to his boots. He was left to sleep on bare boards. The prisoners were left with little option and on 20th September embarked on a hunger strike. Ashe informed the Chairperson of the Prison Visiting Justices, ‘I am a political prisoner and I claim to be treated as such. I do not ask to be released but I ask to be treated differently to the pickpocket and other criminals.’
The Mayor of Dublin Laurence O’Neill visited the prisoners and witnessed for himself the conditions in which the prisoners were being held. Ashe had spent over 50 hours in a bare cell in freezing conditions and to add to their privations, the prisoners on hunger-strike were forced to endure the torture of force feeding, whereby their hands and feet were bound and a rubber tube was forcibly placed into their mouth or nose and food pumped into their stomach. It was following one of these sessions that Thomas Ashe fell gravely ill and was rushed to the Mater hospital. His condition rapidly deteriorated and he died on the night of 25th September 1917. Ashe was known the length and breadth of Ireland and was a hugely popular and deeply respected figure. His death was met with widespread grief and dismay. The Freemans Journal, no friend of Irish republicans was forced to concede; ‘his death will make a painful impression. It will greatly increase the flood of bitterness which was the legacy of the Maxwell regime to Ireland.’ The jury at the inquest into his death delivered a damning verdict, condemning the brutality of forced feeding and indicting the British authorities of inhuman punishment:
‘We find that the deceased Thomas Ashe died of heart failure and congestion of the lungs on 25th September, 1917; that his death was caused by the punishment of taking away from the cell bed, bedding and boots, and allowing him to be on the cold floor for 50 hours, and then subjecting him to forcible feeding in his weak condition after hunger striking for five or six days. We censure the Castle Authorities for not acting more promptly, especially when the grave condition of the deceased and other prisoners was brought to their notice. That the hunger strike was adopted against the inhuman punishment inflicted and a refusal to their demand to be treated as political prisoners.’
Thomas Ashe’s body lay in state in Dublin City Hall for three days. Tens of thousands filed past his coffin to show their respects. His funeral was a fitting tribute and a mark of the respect in which he was held. The entire Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers under the command of Dick McKee, effectively took control of the city for the day of the funeral. Frank Gallagher, in his memoir Four Glorious Years 1918-1921 gives a wonderfully descriptive account of the funeral proceedings:
‘The body of Thomas Ashe lay in state in Dublin’s City Hall for two days and tens of thousands passed before it, many weeping, many angry, all sharing a new pride…The day came, and through Dublin passed a cortege the like of which had not been seen since the death of Parnell. Leading the marching host were Volunteers in full uniform, carrying rifles. There was a hush over the city at the daring of it. Everyone wondered would the challenge be accepted; would the troops suddenly bar the way of the Volunteers?
The coffin was carried from the City Hall on the shoulders of Ashe’s comrades. Nearly two hundred priests in their white surplices, mayors and councillors in their red robes, fell in behind the mourners, and as they moved slowly away, the great contingents took their place in the procession from the neighbouring streets; teachers, labourers, athletes, football and hurling leagues, Sinn Féin clubs, Cumann na mBan, Foresters in their colourful uniforms, and many others. The slow beat of drums, the caoining of war pipes, the cry of funeral music filled the air.
Soon one sound overcame them all: the beat of marching feet. The footpaths from the City Hall to Glasnevin were packed tight; the windows were crowded; every statue and vantage point on the way had its watchers, but it was the swing of the Volunteers, in brigades, battalions and companies, and of the 10,000 members of the Trade Unions, led by the Citizen Army, that dominated everything.
The Volunteers had come from all over the country: Sligo, Donegal, Cork, everywhere. Kerry, Ashe’s county, sent 700 to mourn him. The Trade Unions represented every craft in Ireland, and at their head, in their uniforms, marched 1,000 men of the Postmen’s Federation.
….To the beat of muffled drums, the host of mourners slow-marched through the cemetery gates…..Clear into the air the trumpets flung the salute of the Last Post, and as the final note wavered into silence, there came sharp commands, and the three volleys were fired, to be echoed challengingly from near-by houses as every Volunteer stiffened at the sound of Irish arms being used again in Ireland’s name.
A tall, handsome, pale-faced man stepped forward. He was in the uniform of a Volunteer officer. Few at this time knew him, and had to learn his name from the next day’s papers: “Vice-Commandant M. Collins.” He spoke a funeral oration characteristic of the new Ireland that had been born:
“The volley we have just heard is the only speech it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian.”’
The death of Thomas Ashe became one of the milestones in Ireland’s march to freedom.
He and his comrades died in the certainty that the seed that they had sown would flourish.
After his death, thousands of copies of the last poem written by him in Lewes Jail were circulated. ‘Let me Carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord’…contained a prophecy that did not come true:
“And few are the tears that fall for me…. When I go on my way to you.”
Let me Carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord
by Thomas Ashe
Let me carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord
The hour of her trial draws near,
And the pangs and the pains of the sacrifice
May be borne by comrades dear.
But, Lord, take me from the offering throng,
There are many far less prepared,
Through anxious and all as they are to die
That Ireland may be spared.
Let me carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord
My cares in this world are few.
And few are the tears will for me fall
When I go on my way to You.
Spare. Oh! Spare to their loved ones dear
The brother and son and sire.
That the cause we love may never die
In the land of our Heart's desire!
Let me carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord!
Let me suffer the pain and shame
I bow my head to their rage and hate,
And I take on myself the blame.
Let them do with my body whate'er they will,
My spirit I offer to You.
That the faithful few who heard her call
May be spared to Roisin Dubh.
Let me carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord!
For Ireland weak with tears,
For the aged man of the clouded brow,
And the child of tender years;
For the empty homes of her golden plains;
For the hopes of her future, Too!
Let me carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord!
for the cause of Roisin Dubh.
Every time you enter the Study Hall look at the bronze bust of Thomas Ashe remember what he did to make you free.