Irish Republican News · October 17, 2007
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
Thomas Ashe

‘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, ninety years ago this month.

He 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, and ultimately the first IRA Volunteer to die on hunger-strike in pursuit of political status.

Born in 1885 in the village of Lispole, near Dingle, County Kerry, Thomas Ashe pursued a career in teaching, completing his training at the De La Salle College in Waterford. He subsequently took up a position as Principal at Corduff National School in Lusk County 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 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, commenting in a letter to his brother Gregory in America, ‘...we are all here on Larkin’s side. He’ll beat hell out of the snobbish, mean, seoinin employers yet, and more power to him.’ Deeply committed to his work in the Gaelic League, he travelled to the United States in 1914 to raise funds on their behalf.

He played a crucial role in the 1916 Rising. As Commandant of the 5th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers during Easter week he led some of the most daring attacks outside the city. The Volunteers captured RIC barracks in Swords, Garristown and Ashbourne, adopting guerrilla tactics that were later to prove so effective during the Tan War.

Following the Rising, Ashe was sentenced to death which was later commuted to penal servitude for life. He was imprisoned at Dartmoor and Lewes in England, before being released as part of the general amnesty in 1917.

Prior to leaving Lewes Gaol, he was elected President of the Supreme Council of the IRB.

Upon release he quickly immersed himself once again in republican activism, travelling the country speaking at numerous Sinn Féin rallies and addressing the first annual Roger Casement commemoration in his native Kerry.

He was arrested at one such meeting in County Longford and sentenced to a years hard labour for making a ‘seditious speech.’

Denied political status, the prisoners in Mountjoy commenced a hunger-strike in September 1917. Ashe suffered the torture of force feeding and it was during one such brutal session that his lungs became congested and he died on 25th September in the Mater Hospital, aged just 32.

His death brought a massive outpouring of grief as thousands filed passed his coffin as it lay in state in Dublin City Hall. His funeral was one of the biggest seen in the city for generations as tens of thousands came to pay their respects to the gallant Fenian.

A firing party of Volunteers fired a volley of shots over Ashe’s grave. It was this thatMichael Collins referred to in his short and pointed oration that followed,

“The volley we have just heard is the only speech it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian.”

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© 2007 Irish Republican News