Carrying a cross for Ireland: Thomas Ashe in profile
Dr Mary McAuliffe
On 25 September 1917, Thomas Ashe, recently appointed President of the Supreme Council of the IRB and one of the senior leaders of the reorganised Irish Volunteers, died after being force fed while on hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail. Ashe was one of only two surviving senior commandants of 1916, and, as such, his death would prove to be a major propaganda occasion for the re-emerging republican movement. On his release from Lewes Prison under the general amnesty of June 1917, Ashe, like so many others, came back to a changed Ireland. Reorganisation and re-funding of the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, the Irish Citizen Army, and other republican organisations was continuing apace. Republican propaganda, oftentimes driven by the Cumann na mBan women, combined with the continuing negative effects of martial law, was transforming attitudes among the Irish population towards militant republican ideology. Ashe may have experienced catcalls and derision on his way to Richmond Barracks in 1916, but, in 1917, over 4,000 people turned out in Tralee to give him, and the other released internees, a tumultuous welcome home. A growing dissatisfaction with the politics of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and Home Rule, combined with the growing Sinn Féin platform, meant that republican politics were now in the ascendant.
Thomas (Tom) Ashe was born, in 1885, in Kinard, Lispole, Co. Kerry, to a family steeped in Gaelic culture and the Irish language. Ashe was a promising student, a native Irish language speaker, footballer, and member of the Gaelic League from an early age. After training at the De La Salle Waterford from 1905-1907, he got a position teaching at Corduff national school near Lusk, Co. Dublin. On arriving at Corduff, he joined the Dublin city branch of the teachers’ union, the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), and continued his activities in the Gaelic League. An accomplished piper, he founded, and played in, the Black Raven Pipe band (which went on to win first prize in the Oireachtas in Galway in 1913) and was also a founder of the Round Towers GAA club. He was a member of the Coiste Gnótha (executive committee of the Gaelic League) in Lusk, where he got to know Dr Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNéill as well as Seán T. O’Kelly, Seán MacDiarmada, Eamonn Ceannt, The O’Rahilly, Patrick Pearse, and others who later took part in the 1916 Rising.
He had a strong social conscience, influenced by the poverty and inequalities he witnessed growing up in Kerry, and further influenced through his friendships with trade union activists like Sean O’Casey, Maud Gonne and Countess Markievicz. He was troubled by the injustices in the landlord tenant system which he saw all round him in the rich agricultural area of Lusk and his unpublished novel, which remains in manuscript form, was on the plight of the agricultural labourers. He was sympathetic to the cause of labour and was a vocal supporter of the striking workers in Dublin during the 1913 Lockout. In a 1913 letter to his brother Gregory in America, he wrote:
‘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.’
Ashe was also committed to militant nationalism and was already a member of the IRB when, in November 1913, he attended the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers in the Rotunda in Dublin city. Between visits to America in 1914 to fundraise and his continued involvement in the Gaelic League, he was now devoting much of his time to militancy, through his membership of the IRB and the Irish Volunteers. By the end of October 1915, he had become the commandant of the 5th Battalion (Fingal) of the Irish Volunteers, which included the companies in north county Dublin. He and his Volunteers trained for war in the countryside, including training for swift movement on bicycles and motorbike—a tactic that would become more common as the Flying Column in the War of Independence.
On Easter Monday 1916, despite the countermanding order issued by Eoin MacNeill, 120 members of the Fingal Battalion turned out. Their orders were to disrupt and destroy enemy communications, to create a diversion on the outskirts of Dublin, in order to help the insurgents in the city and to add to his battalion’s store of arms and ammunition. Ashe was one of the most militarily successful commandants of 1916, taking Swords, Donabate and Garristown RIC stations and leading the battle of Ashbourne, where he and his men attacked the local RIC barracks, killing at least 10 policemen and taking over 80 prisoners as well as a large quantity of arms. The type of tactics used by Ashe and his men in Ashbourne and north county Dublin were different from the static tactics adopted by the Pearse, Connolly and the other leaders in Dublin 1916. There, in the city, outposts were taken and garrisoned and the insurgents waited for attack. Ashe and his men fought a more guerrilla-style campaign; they broke into small groups and moved rapidly through the countryside, launched surprise attacks at selected positions, took arms and then disappeared to fight again elsewhere. Ashe would later discuss these types of tactics with his fellow internees, and there can be no doubt that these discussions formed part of the planning for what would be a very diffident style of warfare from 1919 onwards. Despite their success at Ashbourne, however, on Easter Saturday, 29 April 1916, Ashe and his men received news of the surrender in Dublin and orders from Pearse for the Fingal Volunteers to surrender.
After the surrender, Ashe was arrested, imprisoned, tried under court martial and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was sent, along with 65 other insurgents including de Valera, to Dartmoor Prison in England and later to Lewes Prison near Brighton. In prison, Ashe organised Irish classes, spoke with his comrades about politics, war and tactics—his successes in Ashbourne gave him real military standing among the surviving Irish Volunteers. It is also in Lewes that he wrote his famous poem, ‘Let me Carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord’. While in prison, he was in constant communication with Michael Collins and was aware of political developments and changing attitudes to the Rising in Ireland. He was a pragmatic man of action and supported the policy of contesting the by-elections which happened in North Longford and South Roscommon in 1917—both of which Sinn Féin won. On his release, Ashe was regarded as one of the most important, senior and popular leaders of the Irish Volunteers. Ever the pragmatist, he was determined to take advantage of the environment now receptive to republican ideology, travelling the country and making seditious speeches in breach of the conditions of his release under Defence of the Realm (DORA) regulation, and working to re-organise the republican organisations.
In July 1917, Ashe and others campaigned successfully for de Valera during the East Clare by-election. Many wanted Ashe to contest this election, but de Valera also had much support, so Ashe, ever the pragmatist, stood aside so as not to split the newly resurgent republican movement. It is during this East Clare by-election that the IRA emerges as a formidable, militant force in Irish politics, due in no small part to the oratory skills of Thomas Ashe. After de Valera’s victory, he continued his work; his status as a senior surviving member of the 1916 Rising and his well-known ability as a rousing speech maker meant he was in much demand around the country. As one of his comrades from Ashbourne said of him after a fighting speech delivered at Donabate, ‘Tom Ashe couldn’t deliver anything else’.
On 7 August 1917, in Kerry, he participated in a mass meeting of over 12,000 people to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Roger Casement. A procession of Sinn Féin members took place, starting at the Tralee Sports Field and continuing to the Carrahane Strand in Ardfert, the place of Casement’s arrest. The procession included large groups of young men and women, many carrying tricolours, from Tralee, Dingle, Cahirciveen, Listowel and beyond. As The Kerryman reported: ‘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’.
Speeches were delivered by senior Kerry members of the Irish Volunteers and the IRB, including Austin Stack, Fionán Lynch, Frank Fahy and Thomas Ashe. Ashe spoke of Casement, the dead patriot, naming him among the pantheon of ancient patriots, who had fought and sacrificed for Ireland:
‘We look away in the distant ages of the past to the figure of the King who died in the battle of Clontarf, and we think of the Ireland which he ruled; and the Ireland of our ideals is a similar one. We go down the paths of history from the days of the great Brian, and we meet the O’Neills of Ulster; we meet with the Chieftains of Munster; we go through the period of Shane O’Neill down to the days of the sacrifices of Wolfe Tone and of Robert Emmet….’
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’. He recalled for the ecstatic crowd the words of James Connolly who sent him a despatch during Easter Week which said, among other things, ‘The Republican Flag flies triumphant over Dublin City. There will be glorious days for Ireland yet’.
Ashe continued to build on the Sinn Féin by-election successes, and despite martial law and restrictive DORA regulations, continued to make incendiary speeches around the country. One speech, in particular, that he had given at Ballinalee, Co. Longford, on 22 July 1917, led to a warrant being issued for his arrest. Here at Ballinalee, he celebrated the election of Sinn Féin candidates—de Valera in the East Clare and Joe McGuiness in South Longford by-elections—and looked forward to the success of W. T. Cosgrave in the upcoming Kilkenny by-election (which Cosgrave did indeed win). These wins, he said, gave an answer to the British Foreign Secretary Mr Arthur Balfour, who was then on the Balfour Mission, a crucial alliance-building tour in America, where he questioned if the Irish really wanted an Irish Republic. Ashe stated that Joe McGuinness’ win in South Longford gave a loud answer to Balfour; that the Irish stood for a republic, that they were ‘out, not for Home Rule or Colonial Home Rule, but for a free and independent Republic in Ireland … they would accept no settlement from Westminster; they had placed the Irish Question on an international status, and to the Conference of the Nations of Europe they would go, with their claim that Ireland must be a free and independent nation’.
These types of seditious speeches had the British authorities very anxious at the increasing levels of IRA activity and the growing popularity of Sinn Féin, hence the warrant was issued for Ashe’s arrest. On Saturday, 18 August 1917, he was visiting Dublin city centre to be updated on Gaelic League matters when, while waiting for a friend, two plainclothes detectives recognised and arrested him. He was imprisoned in the Curragh and faced court martial, under DORA regulations, on 3 September on a charge of ‘causing disaffection among the civilian population’. He was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. A decision was taken to gather all the DORA prisoners centrally in Mountjoy Jail, where Ashe was joined by 40 others, including fellow Kerrymen Austin Stack and Fionán Lynch. On 11 September, Ashe informed the Deputy Governor, that he would not ‘work or obey any order relating to criminal prisoners as I do not consider myself a criminal’. Ashe and the others were determined to gain ‘political prisoner’ status and to use all methods at their disposal, including engaging in insubordination, associating without permission, refusing orders, using the ‘Lewes’ tactic of breaking furniture and destroying furniture and windows, and, also, the option of the hunger strike to achieve this.
With all other options exhausted, the men decided on hunger strike, which began on 20 September 1917. The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Laurence O’Neill, visited the prison to try and negotiate a solution, but failed, so on 22 September, the prison authorities began force feeding the prisoners. On the morning of 23 September, Ashe was force fed for the first time. Fionán Lynch recalled the procedure the men endured: ‘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.’ Ashe was kept in a cold cell without any bedding initially and force fed twice a day for two and a half days before he fell deathly ill. His friend, the playwright Seán O’Casey, described what happened as follows: ‘Weaker and weaker grows the once muscular body of the young Republican, the curly head falls helplessly on the shrunken shoulder, and the once red lips are rapidly turning blue.’ Ashe had been roughly force fed by a Dr. Lowe, and the subsequent examination of his body showed extensive bruising and marks around his mouth, chin and throat. On his way to his last force feeding, on the morning of 25 September, he passed the cell of his friend Fionán Lynch. Lynch shouted at him, ‘Stick it, Tom boy’. Ashe replied, ‘I’ll stick with it, Fin’. Within a short time after that force feeding, however, it was obvious that Ashe was in serious distress and he was removed to the nearby Mater Hospital. Two Capuchin Friars were called to give him last rites at around 10.30 that evening. He died soon after, while Dr Kathleen Lynn was taking his pulse.
The Ashe funeral provided a major propaganda occasion for republican organisations and became the focus of mass demonstrations throughout the country. Large crowds, led in prayers by dozens of Cumann na mBan women, soon gathered outside Mountjoy Jail and the nearby Mater Hospital when Ashe’s body lay. Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan were on duty for his lying-in-state at both the Mater Hospital and later at City Hall. Within the IRB there was a determination to extract maximum propaganda value from the death of their comrade. With memories of the importance to militancy of the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in 1914, a major occasion was planned. The Ashe family were persuaded not to take the body back to Kerry for burial, and the Wolfe Tone Memorial Association (an IRB front) planned the funeral and the INAVDF (Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependents Fund) paid for it.
The Estates Committee of Dublin Corporation granted permission for Ashe’s body to lie in City Hall where tens of thousands of people would come to pay their respects in the following days. The subsequent funeral was one of the largest displays of republican support since the Rising. Over 200 Irish Volunteer members came from Ashe’s native Kerry and thousands of uniformed members of all republican organisations gathered outside City Hall. In all, 9,000 Volunteers, 18,000 trade unionists, members of the Irish Citizen Army, and Cumann na mBan joined his funeral cortège. The cortège took a roundabout route to Glasnevin so that it passed sites associated with the patriot dead – up at High Street, it passed Tailors hall where Wolfe Tone and United Irishmen met prior to the United Irish 1798 rebellion, and up through Thomas St. where it passed the site of execution of Robert Emmet, whose failed rebellion in 1803 was still remembered in song and story. Back onto the Quays it would pass near the Four Courts and, onto O’Connell St, it passed the GPO, important sites for the 1916 Rising. The message here was of Ashe, now in his turn, joining the pantheon of martyred patriots for Irish freedom.
The funeral procession from City Hall to Glasnevin Cemetery, ‘at least three miles in length’, filmed and later shown all over the country, was a massive show of strength. At Glasnevin, after shots were fired over the coffin, Michael Collins delivered the short, but intransigent, 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’s oration marked his ascent as successor to Ashe in the IRB and the republican movement. It is considered by many historians as a defining moment in the struggle for independence, and a turning point in the radicalisation of nationalist opinion. Ian MacPherson, Chief Secretary of Ireland, stated that Ashe's death did ‘more to stimulate Sinn Féinism and disorder in Ireland than anything I know’ while the London Daily Express commented that Ashe’s death had made 100,000 Sinn Féiners out of 100,000 constitutional nationalists.
With the inquiry into his death, republicans had much more material to use as propaganda. Good looking, physically imposing, an Irish speaker, a fervent Gaelic Leaguer, a teacher, a piper, a member of the IRB and 1916 commandant, a successful military man, yet obviously spiritual and pious, he was the perfect icon of republican manhood, patriotism and sacrifice. Thousands of photographs of Ashe, memorials cards and copies of his poem, ‘Let me carry your Cross or Ireland, Lord’, were distributed across the country. The inquiry caused more uproar and, ironically, prison officials were discouraged from further force feeding, as it was found that botched force feeding, which was deemed a cruel and inhuman method, had caused his death. Over the body of this new martyred Irish patriot, the many strands of Irish nationalist opinion began to converge under the Sinn Féin banner. As his old comrade, President Seán T. O’Kelly, said of him later in 1959,
‘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’.
After his death, Ashe was remembered in song and story, and as Peig Sayers said in her memoir, images of Ashe and the 1916 leaders were so secure on the walls of her home and in homes all around the country that ‘the mythological hero Oscar, the strongest day he ever was, could not pull them down’. The republican movement may have lost a fiery speaker, an experienced military leader and a pragmatic politician when Ashe died in September 1917, but it gained a powerful martyr for the cause, and one which was put to very effective use.
Dr Mary McAuliffe is an historian and assistant professor in Gender Studies at UCD. She recently co-edited Kerry 1916; History and legacies of the Easter Rising. A Centenary Record.